New multiphoton microscopes could help cut disease diagnosis costs

A team of researchers from Imperial College London and the University of Bath (both in England) has developed two new multiphoton microscopy devices that could reduce the need to take tissue samples during medical examinations and operations, and to then send them for testing. The novel developments could potentially speed diagnosis and treatment, and cut healthcare costs.

One device, a lightweight handheld microscope, was developed to examine external tissue or tissue exposed during surgery. One example of its use could be to help surgeons compare normal and cancerous cells during an operation. A key advantage is that the device can acquire high-quality 3D images of parts of the body while patients are moving (for example, normal breathing), enabling it to be applied to almost any exposed area of a patient's body.

The lightweight, handheld multiphoton microscope device. (Image credit: Imperial College London)

The second instrument, a tiny endoscope incorporating specially designed optical fibers and ultra-precise control of the light coupled into it, has the potential to be inserted into the body to carry out internal cell-scale examination--for example, during neurosurgery. Ultimately, this new approach may be able to provide high-resolution images, enabling surgeons to see inside individual cells at an adjustable depth beneath the surface of the tissue.

The multiphoton endoscope device that incorporates specially designed optical fibers. (Image credit: Imperial College London)

Currently, the diagnosis of many diseases requires taking a tissue specimen from the patient, preparing it in a laboratory, studying it under a microscope, and then forwarding the results back to the clinician. The new devices, both of which harness a technique known as multiphoton microscopy to analyze individual cells in their native tissue, could be used in a consulting room or an operating theater to help clinicians identify diseased tissue and provide a rapid diagnosis.

The handheld microscope incorporates a tracking mechanism that compensates for the patient's movements, ensuring the generation of steady images. The endoscope is just a fraction of a millimeter in diameter and has no moving parts. Both these devices use novel multicore optical fibers developed by the University of Bath.

After further development and refinement of the technology, clinical trials will explore the healthcare benefits of the two devices in more detail, with the goal of beginning to introduce them into clinical use within around 5-10 years. Funding for the work was provided by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

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