Surgeons Testing Smartglasses That Pinpoint Cancer Tumors During Surgery

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Researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri are testing a pair of smartglasses designed to help surgeons find and remove all traces of cancer while in the operating room. The technology was tested in for the first time last week.

Julie Margenthaler, MD, a professor of surgery at Washington University, performed the surgery on a breast cancer patient on February 10. She says, “We’re in the early stages of this technology, and more development and testing will be done, but we’re certainly encouraged by the potential benefits to patients.”

The technology relies on a molecular agent that is injected into the tumor just prior to surgery. The agent binds to cancer cells and glows a bright blue when viewed through a specially designed headset. The glasses are able to detect and highlight tumors as small as one millimeter in diameter, allowing surgeons to get a much clearer picture of what tissue needs to be removed.

The current standard of care for cancer removal is for surgeons to remove the tumor and surrounding area. The tissue is then sent to a pathologist who inspects the outer edge to ensure that the cancer did not extend beyond the area that was removed. If any cancer cells are found at the outer edge, surgeons are alerted and the patient is brought in to inspect for additional traces of cancer still in the body.

Cancer cells are notoriously difficult to differentiate from healthy cells with the naked eye and, as a result, 25 percent of patients undergoing surgery to have tumors removed require secondary procedures. There are very few effective tools available to help surgeons find the perimeter of a cancer tumor intra-operatively. Researchers are hopeful that introducing the new smartglasses technology will lead to a drop in the need for secondary surgeries, and an overall improvement in cancer mortality rates.

The technology is still years from being available to surgeon’s fighting cancer across the nation. Neither the glasses, nor the binding agent designed to be used with the glasses, have received FDA approval. Researchers are planning to continue testing with the next scheduled patient due to undergo surgery next week for a melanoma removal.

Samuel Achilefu, PhD, the lead researcher on the project at Washington University, says, “This technology has great potential for patients and health-care professionals. Our goal is to make sure no cancer is left behind.”


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