Engineers at the University of Washington are developing a handheld microscope, roughly the size of a pen, that could help surgeons see at the cellular level where tumors stop and start.
“Surgeons don’t have a very good way of knowing when they’re done cutting out a tumor,” says Jonathan Liu, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Washington. “They’re using their sense of sight, their sense of touch, pre-operative images of the brain—and oftentimes it’s pretty subjective.
“Being able to zoom and see at the cellular level during the surgery would really help them to accurately differentiate between tumor and normal tissues and improve patient outcomes,” says Liu, who is senior author of a paper in Biomedical Optics Express that describes the technology.
The microscope combines technologies in a novel way to deliver high-quality images at faster speeds than existing devices. Researchers expect to begin testing it as a cancer-screening tool in clinical settings next year.
For instance, dentists who find a suspicious-looking lesion in a patient’s mouth often wind up cutting it out and sending it to a lab to be biopsied for oral cancer. Most come back benign.
That process subjects patients to an invasive procedure and overburdens pathology labs. Instead, physicians could use the microscope to better assess which lesions or moles are normal and which ones need to be biopsied.
“The microscope technologies that have been developed over the last couple of decades are expensive and still pretty large, about the size of a hair dryer or a small dental x-ray machine,” says study coauthor Milind Rajadhyaksha, associate faculty member in the dermatology service at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. “So there’s a need for creating much more miniaturized microscopes.”
Read on to understand the challenges that the team faced to engineer their miniaturized microscope and to see a short video and examples of the images it can produce.