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Portable Probe Aims to Speed Oral Cancer Diagnosis

AUSTIN, Texas, April 30, 2012 — A new portable, miniature microscope could reduce the time it takes to diagnose oral cancer.

Oral cancer rates have risen by more than 20 percent in the past 30 years. Historically, the death rate associated with oral cancer is particularly high, not because it is hard to discover or diagnose, but because it is discovered late in its development.

Oral cancers have traditionally been diagnosed by biopsy, in which a sample of tissue from the patient is sent to a pathologist, who checks it for abnormal or malignant cells. Results are sent back to the doctor for the next round of diagnoses or surgery, which can take up to several weeks. This process is not only time-consuming, but also costly, invasive and painful, often leaving scars.


A team of American researchers has created a portable, miniature microscope in the hope of reducing the time taken to diagnose oral cancer. (Image: Dr. John X.J. Zhang, Department of Biomedical Engineering, the University of Texas at Austin)

Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin have developed a probe, about 20 cm long and 1 cm wide at its tip, that could be used to diagnose oral cancer in real time or as a surgical guidance tool. Dentists also could use it to screen for early-state cancer cells.

The probe generates full 3-D images of areas within a tissue surface by illuminating the sample areas with a laser. It can deliver a large field of view by taking a sequence of images and layering them on top of one another.

The device’s main component is a micromirror, which was used previously in fiber optics and bar-code scanners. A microelectromechanical system (MEMS) is used to control the micromirror, which enables the laser beam to scan an area in a programmed fashion. The micromirrors are affordable, can be produced easily and can be integrated into electronic systems for a variety of imaging operations.

The research team and its commercialization partner NanoLite Systems Inc. plan to conduct clinical trials to receive FDA approval. Through fine-tuning, they believe the cost of the device can be reduced to one-fourth the price of current microscopes used to diagnose oral cancer.

The work appeared in the Journal of Micromechanics and Microengineering.

For more information, visit: www.utexas.edu  


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