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Butterfly eye inspires cancer-detecting camera

23/05/2018By Matthew Woodley
Researchers have used the eye of a morpho butterfly as inspiration to develop a multispectral camera that can more easily detect cancer-stricken tissues.

The camera, which connects to the surgeon’s goggles, identifies infrared signals given off by tumor-binding dyes to allow the surgeon to remove all of the cancerous tissue.

“By looking at the way nature has designed the visual systems of insects, we can address serious problems that exist with cancer surgery today and make sure there are no cancer cells left behind during surgery,” study leader Professor Viktor Gruev from the University of Illinois said.

“This technology is more sensitive, more accurate, much smaller and lower-cost than currently available instruments that are FDA-approved to detect these signals.”

The morpho butterfly’s eye has specialised nanostructures that allow it to see multispectral images, including near-infrared. Gruev’s team built its camera with the same kinds of nanostructures, creating a small camera that can simultaneously register regular colour images and near-infrared signals without needing to dim the room lights.

“The surgeon puts on the goggles that have integrated our bio-inspired camera technology, and it will protect their eyes and at the same time project the fluorescent information whenever they want it,” Gruev said.

The camera was tested using tumor-binding fluorescent dyes and doctors were able to see lymph nodes on a woman diagnosed with breast cancer.

According to Gruev, the camera is expected to cost around US$200, substantially lower than the currently used FDA-approved imaging devices, which start from around $20,000 each.

“Ninety-five percent of hospitals in the United States have small operating rooms. No matter how good the technology is, if it’s too big, it can’t enter the surgical suite,” study co-author and postdoctoral researcher Dr Missael Garcia said.

“It’s a very busy place during the surgery, so rolling in an instrument as big as a table just isn’t going to work.”

According to Garcia, the camera worked so effectively during in vivo testing on mice   that they were able to locate tumor sites through the skin.

“We could image before the incision and identify the potential points of interest to minimise the incision,” Garcia said.

The researchers also used dye that emitted an infrared signal to compare to how well physicians could identify the lymph nodes in a patient with breast cancer by looking for the colour by eye, and then looking for the infrared signal using the butterfly’s-eye camera. According to Gruev, the camera found lymph nodes in two patients that the surgeons did not see visually – and the nodes turned out to be cancerous.

“Our technology is much quicker because one of the advantages is imaging deeper in the tissue,” he said.

“Sometimes when they’re looking for green colouration, they’re looking for a while because the nodes are below the surface. With the fluorescence, you can see through the skin or the tissue and identify them much quicker.”

The researchers next plan to integrate their camera with endoscopic camera systems.


Image courtesy: Flickr | Tony Hisgett

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