UI imaging technique looks at breast cancer

By Caroline Coyle, Staff Writer

A newly developed portable optimizing imaging system created in University bioengineering professor Stephen Boppart’s lab now allows researchers to visualize the microenvironment of surgically removed human breast cancer tissue.

The portable optimizing imaging system uses light to identify and categorize different areas of the tissue and cells. This system can identify specific features of tissue that make up a tumor microenvironment.

“Our technology enables our ability to visualize, image and quantify cells and the extracellular vesicles that they produce right at the point-of-procedure, immediately when tissue/cancer is taken out during surgery,” Boppart said.

This new system could allow researchers to identify cancer cells in the body, without having to surgically remove them for biopsy.

“This imaging technology has the potential to open unprecedented perspectives for label-free intravital functional imaging for various branches of cancer research due to its label-free nature, relative simplicity, versatility and rich molecular profiling capability,” said Sixian You, graduate student in bioengineering, who is involved in the project.

Without the use of the imaging system, the process of diagnosing cancer takes a few days involving the tissue having to be fixed, processed, sectioned and stained for regular histology and diagnosis.

With the portable optimizing imaging system, researchers took 30 minutes to identify tissue features at Carle Foundation Hospital.

“This technology developed over many years. First, we had new innovations in the laser light source that is used for this type of imaging,” Boppart said. “That enabled us to see the cells and tissue in new ways.”

The imaging system was originally built as a microscope system in the Beckman Institute Lab but was later engineered to fit on a cart that could be brought into an operating room.  

“Our next steps are to engineer beam-delivery systems, such as a handheld probe, so this imaging can be done at other tissue sites,” Boppart said.

In addition to the research regarding the microenvironment of a tumor, Boppart and his team are interested in measuring tumor-related extracellular vesicles.

Extracellular vesicles promote the spread of cancer throughout the body.

Through collection and study of breast tissue from both cancer free and cancer patients it was found the extracellular vesicle density was much higher in cancer patients.

This technology could be beneficial in terms of diagnosing and imaging breast cancer that impacts 1 in 8 women.

“We believe the impact of this technology will be great, because it will begin to change the way we visualize tissue for diagnosis,” Boppart said.

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