This is the Newest Tech Breakthrough: Hi-Tech Glasses to Help Spot Hidden Cancer Cells

The breakthrough: While reactions to the introduction of Google Glass have been mixed (see the #glasshole meme), there's one piece of wearable tech that everyone can get behind: special fluorescence detecting glasses that help surgeons remove malignant tumors.

A prototype of these hi-tech glasses was successfully used on a cancer patient for the first time in St. Louis on Monday. Cancer cells are extremely difficult to see using normal optics, even with high-powered magnification. By injecting a blue dye which specifically binds to cancer cells, surgeons using the glasses are able to detect and remove tumors as small as 1 mm.

It is hoped that the glasses will help to reduce the number of surgeries patients undergo to remove cancerous cells. Currently, up to 25% of breast cancer patients require more than one round of surgery. Surgeons have to balance removing enough cells from the body so nothing potentially tumorous is left behind without taking away too much healthy tissue. To ensure all cancerous cells have been cut away, a lab test is conducted before deciding if subsequent procedures are needed. This evaluation can be done live with these glasses, and the appropriate cells excised with greater accuracy.

How do  they work? The glasses were developed by a team at Washington University led by Dr. Samuel Achilefu, based on earlier experiments in mice. Before surgery, a fluorescent dye is injected that binds only to cancerous cells, which have different surfaces to normal cells. The blue dye used on human patients appears a more vibrant shade of light blue wherever there is a high density of cancer cells, and darker in less concentrated areas.


Image: Injection on fluorescent contrast dye into mice, and accumulation in cancerous lymph node (Credit: Journal of Biomedical Optics)

The dye is invisible to the human eye but fluoresces under special lighting so that it can be visualized with the right optical equipment. The glasses also process the fluorescent light live to reduce background noise and enhance contrast to make spotting the cancer cells easier.


Image: Suregeon's view using the fluorescence-detecting glasses (Credit: Washington University)

"A limitation of surgery is that it's not always clear to the naked eye the distinction between normal tissue and cancerous tissue," Dr. Ryan Fields, a Washington University assistant professor of surgery, said. "With the glasses developed by Dr. Achilefu, we can better identify the tissue that must be removed."

Glass technology in medicine: Advanced imaging technology and miniaturization is leading to an enhanced toolkit for surgical procedures.  

3D glasses are best known from movie theaters rather than operating theaters, however a study last year revealed that more surgeons are interested in using the technology. Test runs showed that 3D glasses are extremely useful for endoscopic surgery, where surgeons hands are usually obscured. Using the glasses, surgeons were able to perform the procedure in 15% less time, and with greater accuracy.


Image: Surgeons using 3D glasses (Credit: Asianewsphoto)

Google itself is also part of the wearable tech revolution in medicine. Last year doctors in Spain became the first to use Google Glass during surgery for a chondrocyte transplant operation. They used the augmented reality technology to consult in real time with surgeons based in the U.S.


Image: Example of a live view using Google Glass for surgery (Credit: Phillips)

These implementations show that wearable tech isn't just about consumer niches such as measuring fitness, live documentation or mobile charging. Wearable tech promises an exciting future because its adoption will help improve the fields of medicine and surgery, where precision, speed of information, and comfort is vital for saving lives.

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Lucky Tran

Lucky Tran is a scientist with a PhD in molecular biology from Cambridge, who has worked at the intersection of science research, policy and education in the US, UK and Australia. As a science media maker, he is interested in how science and technology is rapidly changing how we live, as well as the story of growing participation: citizen science, maker movement, and open science. Get in touch at info [a] luckytran.com.

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