SEATTLE -- A team of researchers at the University of Washington hopes to change cancer care with a change at the very moment of a diagnosis.
"Looking at tissue under the microscope and telling a patient whether they have cancer or no cancer can be the biggest moment in a lot of people's lives," said Dr. Nicholas Reder, a UW Medicine pathologist.
Dr. Reder wanted a way to improve that process, which takes hours. The gold standard in pathology involves slices of tissue that have been chemically treated and examined under a regular microscope.
He brought in mechanical engineering professor Jonathan Liu. Two years later, the result is an open top, light sheet microscope. Think of it like a scanner for a tumor biopsy. It gets a rich analysis in a matter of minutes.
"We hope that can improve our diagnosis of diseases and improve the treatments of patients, avoiding overtreatments," said Liu. "Also potentially guiding surgeries, being able to tell the surgeon if they've removed all the tumor or not."
Liu envisions the microscope set up in a pathology lab, adjacent to the surgical suite. Once a tumor is removed, it could be examined in minutes, ensuring there are cancer free margins. He said that could eliminate the estimated 20-40% of women who have lumpectomies and then need to return for additional surgeries.
The microscope can also create a 3-D look at a tissue sample.
UW Medicine surgical pathologist Dr. Lawrence True stood in front of video showing a prostate core sample and compared the image to a CT scan.
"I would say this image here is great," Dr. True said. "We can stand back, and I can look at the glands through multiple levels, that contrasts with the way we look at it under a microscope." And it only takes about 20 minutes to produce the 3-D image.
While the microscope is years from actual use, the team is optimistic they can make cancer care easier and more exact.
"It really just started with a question and a challenge for the engineering group. Can you do this?"
Two years later, they believe the answer is yes. Their microscope is currently undergoing clinical trials to prove it's just as reliable as current technology. They are also researching FDA approval and how to eventually manufacture additional units.