Featured image above: Dr Erik Shartner with the prototype optical fibre sensor, which can detect breast cancer during surgery. Credit: University of Adelaide
An optical fibre probe has been developed to detect breast cancer tissue during surgery.
Working with excised breast cancer tissue, researchers from the University of Adelaide developed the device to differentiate cancerous cells from healthy ones.
Project leader at the Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale BioPhotonics (CNBP) Dr Erik Schartner said the probe could reduce the need for follow-up surgery, which is currently required in up to 20 per cent of breast cancer cases.
“At the moment most of the soft tissue cancers use a similar method during surgery to identify whether they’ve gotten all the cancer out, and that method is very crude,” he says.
“They’ll get some radiology beforehand which tells them where the cancer should be, and the surgeon then will remove it to the best of their ability.
“But the conclusive measurements are done with pathology a couple of days or a couple of weeks after the surgery, so the patient is sown back up, thinks the cancer is removed and then they discover two weeks later with a call from the surgeon that they need to go through this whole traumatic process again.”
The probe allows more accurate measurements be taken during surgery, with the surgeon provided with information via an LED light.
Using a pH probe tip, a prototype sensor was able to distinguish cancerous and healthy cells with 90 per cent accuracy.
The research behind the probe, published today in Cancer Research, found pH was a useful tool to distinguish the two types of tissue because cancerous cells naturally produce more acid during growth.
Currently the probe is aimed for use solely for treating breast cancer, but there is some possibility for it to be used as both a diagnostic tool and during other removal surgeries.
“The method we’re using, which is basically measuring the pH of the tissue, actually looks to be common across virtually all cancer types,” Schartner says.
“We can actually see there’s some scope there for diagnostic application for things like thyroid cancer, or even melanoma, which is something we’re following up.
“The question is more about the application as to how useful it is during surgery, to be able to get this identification, and in some of the other soft tissue cancers it would be useful as well.”
Earlier this year, researchers from CNBP also developed a fibre optic probe, which could be used to examine the effects of drug use on the brain.
Schartner said both probes were noteworthy because they were far thinner than previously developed models at only a few microns across.
“The neat thing we see about this one is that it’s a lot quicker than some of the other commercial offerings and also the actual sample size you can measure is much smaller, so you get better resolution,” he says.
Researchers on the probe hope to progress to clinical trials in the near future, with a tentative product launch date in the next three years.
Also in Adelaide, researchers at the University of South Australia’s Future Industries Institute are developing tiny sensors that can detect the spread of cancer through the lymphatic system while a patient is having surgery to remove primary tumours, which could also dramatically reduce the need for follow up operations.
– Thomas Luke