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More Accurate Thyroid Cancer Screening Technology Advances

Green laser beams

(SD-Pictures, Pixabay)

19 March 2018. A European initiative is developing a laser-enhanced technology to better distinguish between cancerous and benign thyroid nodules, for catching thyroid cancer earlier as well as preventing unnecessary surgeries. A team from the EU-funded Laser and Ultrasound Co-analyzer for Thyroid Nodules, or LUCA, project is scheduled to describe its technology, designed for use in a point-of-care diagnostics device, at the OSA Biophotonics Congress, 3-6 April, in Hollywood, Florida, put on by The Optical Society.

Thyroid nodules are lumps that form in the thyroid gland, found at the base of the neck, secreting hormones that control metabolism. Most thyroid nodules are small and not readily noticed without a medical exam, with only a few ever becoming cancerous. Current techniques for determining the presence of cancer in thyroid nodules, however, relies on screening with ultrasound that returns low-resolution images, followed by fine-needle biopsies that often return false-positive results. Because of these tests, many patients are at risk for undergoing unnecessary surgeries, with avoidable costs and a lower quality of life.

“The problem is in the poor specificity of the current approaches which leads to a significant number of unnecessary biopsies and surgeries,” says LUCA project coordinator Turgut Durduran, in an Optical Society statement. “Unfortunately, current imaging or screening modalities are not able to distinguish malignant nodules from benign nodules with a good specificity.” Durduran is a physicist who leads the medical optics group at Institute of Photonic Sciences, with the Spanish acronym IFCO, in Barcelona, Spain.

LUCA’s approach builds on existing ultrasound methods, but adds on two laser-based processes. One of those optical processes is near-infrared diffuse correlation spectroscopy that is non-invasive, can probe several centimeters into tissue, and provides high-resolution images. A review of the technology in 2017 indicates the process can monitor monitor diseases, including tumor growth, in a number of organs. Portable near-infrared diffuse correlation spectroscopy applications are also available.

The second optical enhancement to ultrasound is time-resolved spectroscopy that uses laser-pulse waves to excite chemicals and measure reactions within nano- or picoseconds. This process, says the project team, can collect data that indicate presence of fluids, like water and lipids. Together with ultrasound, near-infrared diffuse correlation spectroscopy and time-resolved spectroscopy are expected to more accurately identify blood vessel growth characteristic of tumor formation that today may be missed.

The researchers say its prototype system is a probe that includes custom-designed electronics for emitting laser and ultrasound, but also for cooling the device. Nonetheless, they say the cost of their device is a fraction of commercially available systems.

Early results of a pilot test are also showing promise, according to Durduran. “In a pilot study,” notes Durduran, “the mere fact that the ultrasound screening was carried out next to our measurements identified a malignant nodule in a healthy, young volunteer, and we have seen that many nodules that went all the way to a surgery turned out to be benign.”

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