Microscopy technique identifies lung cancer from cheek cells

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Using biophotonics technology, researchers at Northwestern University and NorthShore University HealthSystem have developed a method to detect early signs of lung cancer by examining human cheek cells.

’By examining the lining of the cheek with this optical technology, we have the potential to pre-screen patients at high risk for lung cancer, and identify the individuals who would likely benefit from more invasive and expensive tests versus those who don’t need additional ones,’ said Dr Hemant Roy, director of gastroenterology research at NorthShore.

The optical technique is called partial wave spectroscopic (PWS) microscopy and was developed by Vadim Backman, a professor of biomedical engineering at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science. Backman and Roy previously used PWS to assess the risk of colon and pancreatic cancers, also with promising results.

PWS can detect cell features as small as 20 nanometres, uncovering differences in cells that appear normal using standard microscopy techniques.

’Despite the fact that these cells appear to be normal using standard microscopy, there are actually profound changes in the nanoscale architecture of the cell, which we have determined to be one of the earliest signs of carcinogenesis and a strong marker for the presence of cancer in the organ.’

The results of a study using the PWS test were similar to other successful cancer screening techniques, such as the pap smear, Backman said, but additional large-scale trials will still be necessary to further validate the technology.

If it continues to prove effective in clinical trials at detecting cancer early, Backman and Roy believe PWS has the potential to be used as a pre-screening method, identifying patients at highest risk who are likely to benefit from more comprehensive testing such as bronchoscopy or low-dose CT scans.