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Wednesday, 20 March, 2002, 12:06 GMT
Light detects cancer
tumour x-ray
New technology may show up tumours
Surgeons of the future may use light to find out whether breast cancer has spread to the lymph glands, scientists suggest.

The technique can also detect residual cancer in the breast that had not been removed during surgery.

A team at University College London (UCL) has devised the simple "optical biopsy" procedure which enables doctors to recognise tumours by looking at the different patterns made when light meets cancerous tissue.

This device might assist the surgeon in looking for residual cancer

Dr Andrew Lee
The measurement takes just one second and will speeds up the process of diagnosis, according to clinical research fellow Dr Andrew Lee.

It can currently take up to a week for pathologists to make a diagnosis from biopsy tissue on whether breast cancer has spread to the lymph glands in the armpit.


The new procedure involves feeding tiny pulses of harmless white light through a thin optical fibre onto the tissue surface at the site where cancer is suspected.

Dr Lee said: "Light scattered back from the tissue is picked up by a second fibre, which takes the light to a spectrometer, where the intensities at different wavelengths can be recorded and analysed on a portable computer."

The computer compares the light patterns with memorised patterns of normal and cancerous tissue to make a diagnosis without the need to remove any tissue.

Dr Lee said: "At the moment, it's still under development and with further improvements we are quite confident our accuracy will be as good as current techniques available.

"This device might assist the surgeon in looking for residual cancer and in determining if it has spread to other parts of the body.

"This would enable an immediate clinical decision on further surgery, thus reducing the number of patients returning for a second operation."

Other cancers

UCL is also evaluating the procedure for cancer of the oesophagus, gut, lung, mouth and skin.

The system has been tested on more than 200 patients over the past four years, who underwent surgery for breast cancer.

Optical biopsy
Cancer cells produce different patterns
Researchers used the optical biopsy procedure to measure both cancerous and non-malignant tissue from patients, which enabled the computer to learn the different patterns and distinguish between the two.

Dr Lee said it was a cost effective procedure, compared to biopsies and had the added advantage of being portable.

However, he warned that large-scale tests would need to be carried out before this method could be used, which may take a number of years.

The research was presented at the European Breast Cancer Conference in Barcelona.

See also:

19 Mar 02 | Health
Breast screening benefits hailed
15 Mar 02 | Health
Relief over breast drug decision
02 Mar 02 | Health
Breast care cost questioned
01 Dec 01 | Health
Women fail to spot breast cancer
05 Nov 01 | Health
Breast 'most common cancer'
17 Mar 00 | C-D
Breast Cancer
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