Researchers at Northeastern University have developed an accurate cancer-screening technology that determines in seconds whether a cell is cancerous, precancerous or normal.
The technology, for which there is a patent pending, automatically captures a fingerprint of the cell’s biochemical composition, which is subsequently analysed by a computer for abnormalities.
The new method, which can screen for oral, cervical and head-and-neck cancers, is faster, more accurate, and enables earlier detection than current screening methods. Those methods rely on the visual detection, under a microscope, of a few abnormally shaped cells among thousands.
Referred to as Spectral Cytopathology (SCP), the technology was pioneered by professor of chemistry and chemical biology Max Diem, head of Northeastern’s Laboratory for Spectral Diagnosis, with chemistry and chemical biology research scientists Melissa Romeo, Ben Bird, Miloš Miljkovic and several Northeastern graduate and undergraduate students.
Diem said: ‘We are looking beyond traditional methods by focusing on detecting cellular changes that happen in the earlier stages of cancer, which will have a tremendous impact on patients.’
Romeo added: ‘Cytologists [scientists who study the structure and function of cells] have the most difficulty identifying precancers in the earliest stages. Our technology offers the ability to detect abnormal changes in cells even before (structural) changes become apparent.’
Earlier detection combined with greater accuracy – SCP has a greater than 95 per cent accuracy rate compared with 65-70 per cent for current screening methods – would make a significant difference in patient survival rates.
The high death rate associated with oral cancer, for example, results from late-stage diagnoses, often after the cancer has metastasised. When discovered early, however, oral cancers have an 80-90 per cent survival rate.
The new technology, which Diem estimates is no more than five years away from bringing to market, would relieve a testing logjam at existing cytology laboratories. There is a shortage of cytologists able to conduct the tests, he said, limiting the number of screenings that can be performed.
Diem added that SCP could be applied to several other forms of cancer and result in more early diagnoses, potentially improving the survival rate of patients with cancer.
He said: ‘Our ultimate goal is to have this application in doctors’ and dentists’ offices so that patients can be routinely screened.’