Australian scientists have developed the world’s smallest hand-held microscope, which is capable of detecting cancer cells often missed by surgeons during operations to remove breast cancer tumors.
Researchers at the University of Western Australia are using the microscope to capture 3D images using a tiny lens, less than a third of a millimeter wide, that fits inside a needle.
The device is now being tested on human tissue samples.
Associate Professor Robert McLaughlin says it could help prevent the trauma of repeat surgery in breast cancer patients.
“About one in four women who go for a lumpectomy – so that’s where you take out the cancer and leave the rest of the breast – have to go back for more surgery because there are some cancer cells left in there,” he said.
Professor Christobel Saunders, a surgeon and breast cancer specialist at the Royal Perth Hospital, says it is particularly useful for looking at the edge of an area being operated on, to make sure no cancer cells are left behind.
“Tumours can produce very small areas just outside the main tumour mass that we simply can’t see or feel,” she said.
Professor Saunders welcomes the prospect of trials in operating theatres within two years.
“We really can see at a microscopic level where there is tumour. So it’s almost like an ultrasound picture, but at a microscopic level,” she said.
“The idea of this microscope in a needle is that we will be able to detect those at the time of surgery, and more effectively perform surgery.”
Needle microscope offers fresh hope to cancer patients
For Queensland breast cancer patient, Virginia Boskovic, the needle microscope offers fresh hope. This year the 72-year-old was diagnosed with the disease that killed her mother.
“I probably would have been haunted nearly every day of my life – is that microscopic spot going to spread or really run rampant?” she said.
Now recovering from the ordeal, Ms Boskovic welcomes the scientists’ aim to halve the rate of repeat surgery for breast cancer.
“The whole day was quite harrowing for me and if it can eliminate the possibility of having to go back in a second time I think it’s a wonderful thing,” she said.
The needle microscope project is financially supported by the Cancer Council Western Australia, the National Breast Cancer Foundation, and state and federal governments.
This month it was a finalist in the Eureka Prize for Innovative Use of Technology.