New Imaging Technique Hones in to Diagnose Cancer using Laser Light

Kathleen Blanchard's picture

A new imaging technique has been developed by Illinois researchers that can hone in on cancer cells using laser light. The researchers demonstrated cancer can be found in five minutes using nonlinear interferometric vibrational imaging (NIVI), with 99 percent accuracy.

The scientists say they wanted to make cancer easier to diagnosis. Professor and physician Stephen A. Boppart who led the research says current methods of identifying cancer are very subjective. Biopsies sent to the lab an interpreted by pathologists look at how "the cells are laid out, the structure, the morphology." He says, “This is what we call the gold standard for diagnosis. We want to make the process of medical diagnostics more quantitative and more rapid.” Current methods of diagnosing cancer take time. Using NIVI makes diagnosing cancer timelier and is non-invasive.

New Technique Finds Cancer Based on Molecular Composition

The way the imaging technique works to quickly detect cancer is by identifying proteins in tissue that accumulate in higher levels in cancer cells. Light beams are used to increase the vibrational resonance of molecules. Each molecule has a unique vibrational energy state than when enhanced produces signals that can be used to identify abnormal concentration of proteins in the cells.

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“The analogy is like pushing someone on a swing. If you push at the right time point, the person on the swing will go higher and higher. If you don’t push at the right point in the swing, the person stops,” Boppart said. “If we use the right optical frequencies to excite these vibrational states, we can enhance the resonance and the signal.”

The researchers say NIVI can isolate the molecular signal and provides the image using two beams of light - one for a reference and one to excite the tissue and isolate the signal. The image analysis yields red for cancer blue for healthy cells.

Boppart adds another benefit is in measuring cancerous tumor boundaries. “Sometimes it’s very hard to tell visually whether a cell is normal or abnormal, but molecularly, there are fairly clear signatures.”

The researchers are refining NIVI even further. They hope to expand the imaging applications to include testing other types of molecules. They may even be able to make the device portable and add probes and catheters with light beams to hone in on cancer cells without removing any tissue. The new technique can find cancer cells non-invasively, leading to faster and accurate diagnosis.