Making light work of medical monitoring

The hand-held Tricorder used by ‘Bones’ McCoy on Star Trek’s USS Enterprise to scan patients in his futuristic sick bay may be fictional — but today’s optical engineers are developing a tool which uses light to reveal the structure of body tissues beneath the skin and identify conditions that may need treatment.

The device can be used for a wide range of medical monitoring purposes, such as imaging diseases which affect the structure and development of skin, including certain types of cancer; monitoring genetic blood disorders and in the assessment of wound and burn healing. It also has the potential to provide a non-invasive method of checking blood sugar levels in diabetics.

The tool has been developed over the last eight months by Drs Ian Stockford and Stephen Morgan in the school of electrical and electronic engineering at NottinghamUniversity. Their work has been recognised this month by the Royal Academy of Engineering which awarded them prizes from the ERA Foundation.

Much of the device’s technology is currently under wraps because the pair have applied for a patent. But, put simply, light from the device is shone on to the patient’s skin and the optical properties of what is returned is analysed, once surface reflections have been rejected through polarisation. ‘Using polarisation is not new but what we have achieved is a sensitivity to the orientation of the fibres and tissues,’ explained Stockford. ‘We can reveal the architecture which provides doctors with more information and enables them to enhance their diagnoses.’

Evidence that tissue such as collagen or blood cells has been perturbed can indicate conditions requiring attention. For example, in sickle cell disease haemoglobin binds together, leaving it unable to absorb oxygen and a minority of red blood cells become permanently rigid. Accurate imaging of the cells should allow doctors to more accurately assess the severity of the disease.

Once funding has been obtained Stockford said it will take a year to produce a working prototype that could be put into immediate use. ‘It will be operated by a skilled user at first, but ultimately it has the potential for automated diagnosis,’ he said. He and Morgan are considering forming a spin-out company to provide multiple application-specific licences to medical device firms.