Photoacoustics has ‘limitations’ in the detection of cancers

A technique used to detect melanoma skin cancer is claimed to be limited in its ability to identify other types of cancer.

Dubbed photoacoustics, or laser-induced ultrasound, the technique can find some forms of melanoma even if only a few cancerous cells exist.

A study by researchers at the University of Missouri has found that the technique can be enhanced by attaching markers, called enhancers, to cancer cells to improve the ability of photoacoustics to find other types of cancer.

‘Eventually, a photoacoustic scan could become a routine part of a medical exam,’ said Luis Polo-Parada, assistant professor of pharmacology and physiology and resident investigator at the Dalton Cardiovascular Research Center at the University of Missouri. ‘The technique doesn’t use X-rays, like current methods of looking for cancer. It could also allow for much earlier detection of cancer.

‘Now, a cancerous growth is undetectable until it reaches approximately 1cm3 in size. Photoacoustics could potentially find cancerous growths of only a few cells.

‘Unfortunately, our research shows that, besides some cases of melanoma, the diagnostic use of photoacoustics still has major limitations. To overcome this problem, the use of photoacoustic enhancers such as gold, carbon nanotubes or dyed nanoparticles, is needed.’

According to a statement, photoacoustics uses pulses of laser light to heat cells for a fraction of a second. When the cells become hot they emit a tiny sound, which can be detected by extremely sensitive microphones.

The strength of the sound depends on how much laser light is absorbed. Since darker objects absorb more light they also emit more sound and can be found using photoacoustics.

‘Some melanoma can be found by photoacoustics because the cells contain large quantities of melanin, a dark pigment,’ Polo-Parada said. ‘Other cancers don’t have that much pigmentation; hence, they don’t stand out as much in photoacoustic scans. This is where enhancers may be able to help by labelling cancer cells and making them stand out in a scan.’

Polo-Parada, in collaboration with Gerardo Gutierrez-Juarez, researcher from the University of Guanajuato, Mexico, found that out of seven types of cancer cells, only one type of melanoma was dark enough to produce a sound strong enough to be distinguishable from the rest.

The photoacoustic technique holds promise in the fight against cancer, said Polo-Parada, but it is too soon to say exactly when the public will benefit. Eventually, other diseases that cause changes in the colouration of cellular tissue, such as malaria, could be found by photoacoustics.