UCLA Researchers Unveil Virtual Microscope Capable of Spotting Cancer Cells

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Researchers at UCLA reveal a new digital camera chip capable of enlarging images and identifing cancers and other cell-level abnormalities with the same accuracy that expensive pathology microscopes currently do, opening up the possibility of far greater access to high quality imaging services in remote areas. The work comes from the lab of Aydogan Ozcan, a professor of Electrical Engineering and Bioengineering at UCLA. His lab has been focused on advancing cheaper imaging technologies for years. “This is a milestone in the work we’ve been doing,” he says.

The new microscope does not rely on the powerful, but expensive, optical lenses that modern pathology microscopes use to create magnified images. Instead, the device designed by Ozcan’s lab works by shingling an LED into the tissue or blood sample being examined. As this light hits the sample, shadows are created, and a simple sensor array captures the pattern made by these shadows. This data is then processed by algorithms to construct a highly accurate digital image.  The new device renders the image in 3D, as a hologram, and highlights points of contrast to help pathologists quickly and easily detect abnormalities.  “This is the first time tissue samples have been imaged in 3D using a lens-free on-chip microscope,” says Ozcan. The new device also offers workflow improvements for pathologists. The image view can be zoomed in to the cellular level, and then explored at that level without requiring the pathologist to zoom out, move the focal point of the microscope, and then refocus and re-zoom the lens. This lets the pathologist navigate the image at the cell-level much faster than they can with today’s technology.

The new lens-free microscopes were put to the test in a lab where their accuracy was compared to traditional microscopes. In a blinded trial, a pathologist analyzed tissue samples with the 3D images created by the new device. The pathologist was able to positively identify cancer in a batch of breast tissue samples with 99 percent accuracy.

Because modern pathology microscopes are both expensive and large, access is typically limited to hospitals.  Ozcam explains, “While mobile health care has expanded rapidly with the growth of consumer electronics — cellphones in particular — pathology is still, by and large, constrained to advanced clinical laboratory settings.” The new device developed by Ozcan’s team is small and cheap to produce. In time, the hope is that care being delivered in rural areas will be able to take advantage of the devices to process pathology tests locally.

In earlier works, Ozcan’s lab has created smartphone attachments capable of performing cell counts on blood samples, or analyzing food and water samples for allergens and toxins.


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