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Get the Picture? Camera-in-a-Needle Will Screen for Cancers

By Mike Williams

October 21, 2009

Photo of Kelsey Rosbach

Graduate student Kelsey Rosbach adjusts the focus of the integrated optical needle in the BioScience Research Collaborative lab of Rice professor Rebecca Richards-Kortum. The instrument collects images through a fiber-optic line inserted in a needle, seen touching the hand at right. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

Doctors and nurses use needles to take your blood, but how often do they use them to take your picture?

A low-cost camera-in-a-needle invented by Rice University professors Rebecca Richards-Kortum and Tomasz Tkaczyk and their students is in human trials and being used to look for signs of esophageal and cervical cancer. More trials are on the horizon to detect oral and colon cancer, all with a device that costs a fraction of others.

The Integrated Optical Needle for Cellular and Molecular Imaging of Cancer was funded by the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering with an American Recovery and Reinvestment Act grant.

"The competitive cancer-screening devices being tested right now will cost approximately $500,000, so they're limited to tertiary care centers like Mount Sinai and M.D. Anderson," said Richards-Kortum, Rice's Stanley C. Moore Professor of Bioengineering and director of Rice 360°: Institute for Global Health Technologies.

"On the other hand, we can make our device for about $2,500, and it's much less complicated. Making it work in a robust way is much, much easier," she said.

Working from her new office in Rice's BioScience Research Collaborative, Richards-Kortum is following a number of paths to bring Rice innovation to public health, both in the United States and the world through Rice 360°. She said estimates show that by 2020, at least 70 percent of cancer deaths will occur in developing countries. A low-cost, portable screening device could have great impact there.

She and Tkaczyk, an assistant professor in bioengineering, are delighted at the early results from the prototype cameras, which fit in a briefcase and are powered by a laptop computer battery.

"The camera captures, at video rate, images with subcellular resolution of what is in contact with the tip of the bundle," said Richards-Kortum. Analyzing those images can clue doctors in to precancerous conditions that might otherwise require painful and expensive procedures to assess.

Photo of needle camera

Images are carried back through the needle by the light-transmitting fiber-optic line. (Photo by Mark Pierce)

She said current needlecams are a little less than a millimeter in diameter -- not small by needle standards, but usable. She said her lab is working to reduce the size by four-fifths to 200 microns, about twice the width of a human hair.

The camera itself isn't inside the needle. The optic fiber acts as a lens that transfers images to the digital camera -- in one case, a $200 camera bought at Target. "Certainly the advances in consumer electronics have contributed to our ability to do this cheaply, with off- the-shelf cameras," said Richards-Kortum.

"We're really excited about the potential to use all of the advances in the consumer electronics arena to do health care with less-expensive technology."

The National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering funded the project, which also received support from the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.

This article originally appeared on the Rice University New & Media website. Reposted with permission.

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