Tumour imaging technology promises cancer breakthrough

A new imaging system that can precisely detect the edges of tumours in real-time could ‘revolutionise’ cancer surgery, according to its creators.

Waterloo researcher Parsin Haji Reza (Credit: University of Waterloo)

Developed at Canada’s University of Waterloo, the technology relies upon a new technique known as photoacoustic remote sensing microscopy. It works by sending laser light pulses into targeted tissue, which absorbs them, heats up, expands and produces soundwaves. A second laser reads those soundwaves, which are then processed to determine if the tissue is cancerous or non-cancerous. The research, which promises to eliminate the need for secondary oncological surgeries, is published in Science Advances.

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“This is the future, a huge step towards our ultimate goal of revolutionising surgical oncology,” said research lead Parsin Haji Reza, a systems design engineering professor at Waterloo. “Intraoperatively, during surgery, the surgeon will be able to see exactly what to cut and how much to cut.”

Medical professionals currently rely on MRI and CT imaging conducted pre-surgery, as well as visual inspection, when assessing the edges of tumours during procedures. Tissues are then sent to labs to establish if all cancerous tissues have been removed, but the wait for results can be up to two weeks. Roughly 10 per cent of oncological surgeries then require secondary procedures due to tumours not being eliminated in the first instance.

According to the Waterloo team, its system has been used to make accurate images of relatively thick, untreated human tissue samples for the first time ever, which they say is a key breakthrough in the technology’s development. The next phase of research will include imaging fresh tissue samples taken during surgeries, integrating the technology into a surgical microscope and then finally using the system directly on patients during operations. It’s hoped that a fully functioning system will be ready for the operating theatre within two years.

“This will have a tremendous impact on the economics of health-care, be amazing for patients and give clinicians a great new tool,” said Haji Reza, who is also director of the PhotoMedicine Labs at Waterloo. “It will save a great deal of time and money and anxiety.”