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  • Glowing gland could reduce endocrine surgery risk

Sep 2011
Compiled by BioPhotonics staff

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Parathyroid glands – four small organs the size of grains of rice located at the back of the throat – are very difficult to identify with the naked eye, and they can be damaged during surgery to remove a diseased thyroid. Now, scientists have discovered that the glands glow with a natural fluorescence in the near-infrared region of the spectrum, and this unique fluorescent signature could allow endocrine surgeons to detect and positively identify them to avoid injury.

Not only are parathyroid glands difficult to see, but they can be found in different locations from person to person. It takes a microscope to reliably tell the difference between the parathyroid tissue and the thyroid and lymph tissue that surround it. Even with magnification, it is difficult to distinguish the parathyroid.

Parathyroid tissue in the upper right emits a natural fluorescence in the infrared spectrum that is twice as strong as that of thyroid tissue, in the lower left. The difference is strong enough that a simple optical system can distinguish between the two during endocrine surgeries. Courtesy of Mahadevan-Jansen Laboratory.

Biomedical engineers and endocrine surgeons at Vanderbilt University have discovered that the parathyroid tissue glows naturally with fluorescence that is so strong that detecting the tissue does not require expensive or sophisticated instruments, potentially reducing the risk of parathyroid damage during neck surgery.

The team assembled a detector from off-the-shelf hardware consisting of a low-power infrared laser connected to an optical fiber probe. As the fiber illuminates the tissue with invisible near-infrared light, a detector, connected to other fibers in the probe, measures the strength of the fluorescence that the laser excites. The university has applied for an international patent to cover the application.

Although accurate, the first generation of the device was difficult to use because surgeons had to dim the lights for it to work. This will not be the case for the newer version, which will include a filter that will block out visible light. According to the surgeons, the system will be more user-friendly with the addition of a camera that displays the fluorescence of all the tissues in the throat on a single display.

The cause of fluorescence in parathyroid tissues remains a mystery, but the scientists asserted that the uncertainty will not get in the way of using their method to improve the effectiveness of parathyroid surgeries and to reduce the damage done to the glands during other endocrine surgeries.

Details of their work were described in the June 8 issue of the Journal of Biomedical Optics (doi: 10.1117/1.3583571).

A light-tight box that receives light from an object or scene and focuses it to form an image on a light-sensitive material or a detector. The camera generally contains a lens of variable aperture and a shutter of variable speed to precisely control the exposure. In an electronic imaging system, the camera does not use chemical means to store the image, but takes advantage of the sensitivity of various detectors to different bands of the electromagnetic spectrum. These sensors are transducers...
The emission of light or other electromagnetic radiation of longer wavelengths by a substance as a result of the absorption of some other radiation of shorter wavelengths, provided the emission continues only as long as the stimulus producing it is maintained. In other words, fluorescence is the luminescence that persists for less than about 10-8 s after excitation.
An instrument consisting essentially of a tube 160 mm long, with an objective lens at the distant end and an eyepiece at the near end. The objective forms a real aerial image of the object in the focal plane of the eyepiece where it is observed by the eye. The overall magnifying power is equal to the linear magnification of the objective multiplied by the magnifying power of the eyepiece. The eyepiece can be replaced by a film to photograph the primary image, or a positive or negative relay...
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