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Research & Training

Advances in Medical Imaging

Cancer Screening in a Briefcase

Optical imaging systems, suitable for use in low resource settings, have been developed to identify molecular signatures of oral cancer. At a time when the global incidence of cancer is rapidly increasing and many Americans lack health insurance, there's an urgent need for affordable tools to facilitate early detection and management of cancer.

Portable Cancer Screening

Using a portable, fiber-optic probe to screen for oral cancer. Images of normal cells (left) and cancer cells (right) are inset. Credit: Rice University
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A bioengineering group at Rice University, led by Rebecca Richards-Kortum, has developed both wide-field (macroscopic) and high-resolution (microscopic) optical imaging devices for screening and diagnosis of oral cancers. These low-cost, portable systems are suitable for targeting cancer screening and diagnosis in a wide range of settings.

Current procedures for cancer screening typically involve visually inspecting the entire tissue surface at risk. Unfortunately, the macroscopic appearance of pre-cancerous lesions can be difficult to distinguish from many benign conditions. This situation can be improved by using specially filtered light (polarized) and fluorescence to detect disease.

With the new device, which recently received FDA approval, health professionals can more easily inspect the oral cavity for cancer and its precursor lesions. Because of the low cost of the technology, it is feasible to deploy it in primary care settings like the dentist's office.

Portable Cancer Screening briefcase

A portable, fiber-optic probe in a briefcase. Credit: Rice University
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The NIH-supported team has also developed a portable system, contained within a briefcase and operated by a single 12-volt, rechargeable battery, to enable high-resolution evaluation of a patient's epithelial cells, such as those lining the mouth. After a fluorescent solution is applied inside a patient's mouth to make cell components visible, health professionals use a flexible fiber-optic bundle to image epithelial cells and look for changes that distinguish normal cells from pre-cancerous or cancerous cells.

While these systems were initially developed to screen for oral cancer, researchers hope to adapt the technologies to screen for other types of cancer, such as cervical and esophageal.

This page last reviewed on February 25, 2011

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