Handheld medical imaging device for high-res bedside scanning
Scientists at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU Singapore) have developed a prototype handheld medical imaging device that can produce images down to resolutions of 1 to 2 µm — detailed enough to spot the first signs of tumours in specific cells and about 100 times higher resolution than what X-ray, computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines can provide.
Relying on imaging technology known as micro-optical coherence tomography (micro-OCT), the device emits a spectrum of light between 700 to 950 nm, known as near-infrared light. This harmlessly penetrates human tissue and organs, and the device then measures the delay time of the ‘echo’ from its light waves as they strike different tissue structures. This information is used to construct cross-section images of what is being scanned. The results are sent in real time to a computer system running software developed at NTU, which assists in diagnosis by assembling the 2D cross-section images into 3D picture and rendering different parts in colour.
The NTU researchers say that their prototype was designed for use by medical professionals who do not specialise in imaging or pathology, allowing them to scan patients using the device in clinics or at the bedside. Patients would not face the inconvenience of waiting for MRI or CT scanner availability and requiring attendance at a specialised facility.
“Our device is a fraction of the size of existing machines and produces clear, high-resolution images in real time,” said NTU Associate Professor Liu Linbo, who led the research team. “It uses light to harmlessly penetrate the skin, and it does not involve specialised lead-shielded X-ray equipment or MRI scanners. It is small enough to be handheld, so images could be captured by the bedside.”
The prototype has undergone clinical trials at Wuhan University’s endoscopic centre, and has shown promise in detecting abnormal colon polyps to the same level of accuracy as trained pathologists. During a preliminary trial, endoscopists used the device on 58 tissue samples from patients known to have colon polyps — abnormal growths in the colon or rectum. The samples were imaged by the device, and its assessment of whether they were malignant or benign was found to be 95% accurate after an evaluation of the same samples by senior pathologists.
A key promise of the micro-OCT device is its potential ability to spot the first signs of cancers of the colon, stomach and skin, which begin in the nuclei of epithelial cells measuring about 1–2 µm. Epithelial cells are part of the barrier between the inside and outside of the body and are almost impossible to image using current machines that cannot penetrate beyond half a millimetre.
“It is our hope that in future, doctors might be able to use a device like ours to precisely identify diseases as they develop at the cellular level, in real time and in high resolution,” said Assoc Prof Liu. “Through earlier detection, we believe that patients will receive an earlier diagnosis and, if necessary, get treatment faster.”
The device is now being commercialised by a Chinese medical technology firm, Suzhou Sai Luo Er Medical Imaging Technology. Prof Liu and his team are meanwhile conducting more in-depth research into OCT technology, to further improve the device and extend industry collaboration with other healthcare companies.
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