Light scanning could speed up cancer diagnosis

Award winning technology similar to ultrasound scanning, but using light rather than sound waves, could remove the need for biopsies in cervical cancer diagnosis, as well as improving the effectiveness of lung cancer surgery.

The technique, called Hyposcan, was developed by the UK’s Michelson Diagnostics which has won a £15,000 award from the National Endowment of Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA).

Based on optical coherence tomography (OCT), it works like ultrasound by detecting the wave reflection from a surface within the body. Light waves, however, have frequencies much higher than sound waves, which means that the resolution of the images is also far higher.

OCT systems send infrared light along a catheter, which also contains optical detectors to pick up interference pattern caused by light reflecting off the tissue surface. Computer techniques then analyse this pattern to rebuild an image of the tissue surface.

Previous versions of OCT give resolutions close to the cellular scale — similar to what could be seen by studying a sample in a laboratory microscope — but according to Michelson’s applications director, Gordon McKenzie, the technique used to sweep the infrared beam through the frequencies has made OCT too slow to be used in many clinical applications. ‘We’re taking advantage of the new generation of swept-source lasers to make the system faster,’ he said. ‘Rather than using a mechanical mirror to scan an infrared spectrum across the target, we keep the mirror still and sweep the laser source across the frequencies.’ This, he claimed, makes Michelson’s technology around 100 times faster than scanning mirror OCT.

Michelson said that Hyposcan would be able to diagnose cervical cancer faster than biopsies, and is much less painful. The company said the system would also prove beneficial in lung cancer operations. ‘Healthy tissue and tumour cells can look very similar, and the OCT system should be able to give them a definitive answer as to what’s healthy and what’s cancerous.’