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Photoacoustic Technology Could Revolutionize Cancer Surgery

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Researchers at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, have developed photoacoustic technology that can precisely locate and distinguish all of a cancerous tumor during surgery. This could help ensure that healthy tissue remains intact while cancerous tissue is removed and potentially eliminate the need for numerous surgeries.

“This is the future, a huge step toward our ultimate goal of revolutionizing surgical oncology,” said lead researcher Parsin Haji Reza, a professor of systems design engineering at Waterloo and director of the school’s PhotoMedicine Labs.

Parsin Haji Reza works in his lab. Courtesy of the University of Waterloo.
Parsin Haji Reza works in his lab. Courtesy of the University of Waterloo.

The new technology is similar to how laser light interacts with both healthy and cancerous tissue. It can distinguish between them, “in real time and with no physical contact.” According to the researchers, it sends laser light pulses into targeted tissue that absorbs them, heats up, expands, and produces sound waves. A second laser then reads those sound waves; these are processed to determine if the tissue is cancerous or not.

“Intraoperatively, during surgery, the surgeon will be able to see exactly what to cut and how much to cut,” Haji Reza said. Surgeons can view tumors more precisely and accurately, which can help ensure that cancerous tissue is removed the first time. Already, the system has been used to create accurate images of relatively thick, untreated human tissue samples.

Currently, doctors must rely heavily on MRI images and CT scans to inspect tumors prior to or after any surgery. It then can take up to several weeks for test results to determine the nature of the tumor and if all of it has been removed; if not, subsequent surgeries are often necessary. According to the researchers, in about 10% of cases, some portion of cancerous tissue is missed and additional surgeries are required.

The new photoacoustic technology has been developed to be clearer and more precise than traditional imaging methods. And it provides fast results in treatment, because the cancerous tissue can be seen and handled in real time.

The Waterloo team next plans to integrate its new technology into a surgical microscope and image fresh tissue samples taken during surgical procedures. Ultimately, the researchers will develop a fully functional system that will be used on patients during surgery.

“This will have a tremendous impact on the economics of health care, be amazing for patients, and give clinicians a great new tool,” Haji Reza said. “It will save a great deal of time and money and anxiety.”

The research was published in Scientific Reports (  

Nov/Dec 2019
applied opticsbiomedical engineeringResearch & TechnologyeducationAmericasUniversity of WaterlooOpticsphotoacousticscancermedicalBiophotonicsphotomedicineImagingmedical imagingLaserspulsed lasersBioScan

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