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Bio-Inspired Surgical Camera Highlights Cancer Tissue

Morpho butterfly

Morpho butterfly (L. Brian Stauffer, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign)

6 April 2018. A camera modeled on capabilities of a butterfly’s eye offers surgeons definitive images of tumor tissue for removal, as demonstrated in tests with lab animals and patients with breast cancer. Researchers from University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign and Washington University in St. Louis describe the device and their test results in yesterday’s issue of the journal Optica.

Surgery is often the the first and best option for patients with solid tumor cancers, where the cancerous tumors are removed. With surgery, not only tumors, but also in cases such as breast cancer, sentinel lymph nodes are also removed where the cancer often spreads. The authors of the Optica paper cite data showing that even with today’s advanced imaging technology, as many as a quarter of cancer tumor removals are incomplete, with recurrence of the cancers occurring in as many as 27 percent of the cases. In addition, much of the advanced imaging equipment is costly and bulky, making it too expensive or large for many smaller hospitals.

A team from the Biosensors Lab led by engineering professor Viktor Gruev at Illinois are developing imaging technology that better locates and highlights cancerous tissue for removal than today’s equipment, but can also fit easily into surgical workflows. Project leader and first author Missael Garcia says in a university statement, “Ninety-five percent of hospitals in the United States have small operating rooms. No matter how good the technology is, if it’s too big, it can’t enter the surgical suite.” Garcia adds that given the busy, high-stress nature during surgery, “rolling in an instrument as big as a table just isn’t going to work.”

To design their device, the researchers looked to the morpho butterfly, known popularly for its brilliant blue color, but also for its unique visual capabilities. The butterfly’s eye has a complex crystal structure that can process light from multiple spectra, and with this model, the Illinois team combines a series of spectral filters with silicon-based photodetectors that fit on a surgeon’s goggles. The result is a device that detects both color and near infrared fluorescence, with high accuracy and sensitivity when illuminated by surgical light sources, to simultaneously identify features of a patient’s anatomy, and molecular indicators of tumor tissue.

The researchers’ surgical camera has other desirable features, notably its light weight, about 20 grams (0.7 ounces) that will not likely affect surgical workflows. And the authors say the device can be manufactured at a cost of about $20.00, making it well within the budgets of many health care facilities.

The researchers tested the camera first with lab mice induced with breast cancer. The team reports that even where tumors blended in with surrounding healthy tissue and were difficult to detect with the unaided eye, the device highlighted the tumor tissue, making it easier to remove. In addition, by adding near infrared light, the researchers were able to locate tumors beneath the skin surface, making it possible to better plan the incisions.

Cancer surgeons on the the team then used the camera with a group of 11 breast cancer patients undergoing surgery to remove their tumors and sentinel lymph nodes, as well as the current method of injecting a dye into the lymph nodes. The researchers found the new imaging device that added near infrared light better highlighted tissue to be removed than by injecting dye alone. As a result, the camera was able to identify all of the lymph nodes for removal, while current methods found between 87 and 90 percent of the targets, depending on the type of dye.

“This technology is more sensitive, more accurate, much smaller and lower-cost than currently available instruments that are FDA-approved to detect these signals,” says Gruev. “By looking at the way nature has designed the visual systems of insects, we can address serious problems that exist with cancer surgery today and make sure there are no cancer cells left behind during surgery.” The following video tells more about the camera and demonstrates its use.

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