Spotting cancerous cells

Biomedical engineers at Rice University and researchers from M.D. Anderson Cancer Center have created an inexpensive device that will help doctors easily distinguish cancerous cells from healthy cells simply by viewing the LCD monitor on the back of the camera. Using an off-the-shelf digital camera, the consumer-grade product detects cancer cells in real time.

Rebecca Richards-Kortum, Rice's Stanley C. Moore Professor of Bioengineering, is the study’s lead author and believes this development could lower health care costs in developed countries and provide services to resource-poor countries.

In the new study, the team captured images of cells with a small bundle of fiber-optic cables attached to a $400 Olympus E-330 camera. Richards-Kortum’s team uses a common fluorescent dye that caused cell nuclei in the samples to glow brightly when lighted with the tip of the fiber-optic bundle.

Because the nuclei of cancerous and precancerous cells are notably distorted from those of healthy cells, Richards-Kortum said, abnormal cells were easily identifiable, even on the camera's small LCD screen.

Richards-Kortum said software could be written that would allow medical professionals to use the device to distinguish healthy from nonhealthy cells. The device could then be used for routine cancer screening and to help oncologists track how well patients were responding to treatment.