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World’s First Microscopic Probe to Revolutionize Early Cancer Diagnosis

By HospiMedica International staff writers
Posted on 16 Apr 2024

In the early stages of cancer, the cells are significantly softer than normal cells, which facilitates their movement through small spaces and contributes to the rapid spread of the disease, a process known as metastasis. As they spread, these cells alter their surrounding environment to form stiff tumors that offer protection against external threats. Researchers have now developed a groundbreaking endoscopic device capable of 3D imaging the stiffness of individual biological cells and complex organisms, an innovation with the potential to revolutionize early cancer detection and treatment.

The new technology developed by researchers at the University of Nottingham (Nottingham, UK) allows for stiffness measurement of these individual cells using a hair-thin endoscopic probe. This advancement enables, for the first time, the performance of histology (or investigating microscopic cellular tissue) based on abnormal stiffness at the single cell level inside the body. The device achieves exceptionally high imaging resolution by utilizing a phenomenon known as Brillouin scattering, where a laser beam interacts with the natural stiffness of the material being examined, allowing it to detect the stiffness of objects down to billionths of a meter (nanometers).

Image: The endoscopic device can 3D image the stiffness of individual biological cells and complex organisms (Photo courtesy of University of Nottingham)
Image: The endoscopic device can 3D image the stiffness of individual biological cells and complex organisms (Photo courtesy of University of Nottingham)

The application of this technology aided biologists in visualizing the 3D stiffness of a microscopic organism, Caenorhabditis elegans, a nematode commonly used in scientific research. This tool provided detailed visual and material information about a previously difficult-to-image part of the organism’s anatomy, the cuticle, which had only been imaged under non-living conditions using electron microscopes until now.

“We aim to develop new endoscopic technologies that make diagnostics faster, safer, and clearer for both patients and clinicians. Typically, histopathology requires destructive, invasive biopsies that are not only uncomfortable and potentially damaging for the patient, but require significant logistics such as chemical processing, transportation, and analysis,” said Dr. Salvatore La Cavera III from the University of Nottingham. “Our device makes it possible to ‘feel for a stiff lump,’ but on a single cellular scale, meaning we could catch cancer early at microscopic cell scales rather than large malignant tumor scale. It is non-invasive, non-toxic, and very promisingly, is related to technology that can quantitatively determine the presence of cancer cells using artificial intelligence – providing a chronically understaffed area with a much-needed solution to a real-world problem that the industry has faced for decades.”

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