Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, MO, have developed a way of visualizing cancer cells using high-tech glasses designed to make it easier for surgeons to distinguish between cancerous and healthy tissue.

Cancer cells are notoriously difficult to see, even when highly magnified, and the hope is the special glasses will help surgeons remove all of the tumor tissue and avoid leaving behind any stray cancer cells.

Viewed through the glasses, cancer cells appear to glow blue under a special light, thanks to a fluorescent marker injected in the tumor that attaches only to cancerous and not to healthy cells. Also, the lighter the shade of blue, the more concentrated the cancer cells are.

Dr. Julie Margenthaler, a breast surgeon and associate professor of surgery at Washington University, recently carried out the first operation to use the wearable technology, which has not yet been officially named.

She says the technology is still in its early stages and needs to undergo more development and tests, but they are encouraged by the benefits it may offer to patients. She adds:

“Imagine what it would mean if these glasses eliminated the need for follow-up surgery and the associated pain, inconvenience and anxiety.”

At present, when operating to remove a tumor, surgeons are expected to remove the cancerous tissue and also some neighboring tissue that may or may not include cancer cells.

Surgeon wearing the high-tech glassesShare on Pinterest
Breast surgeon Dr. Julie Margenthaler uses the high-tech glasses to visualize cancer cells in a patient.
Image credit: Robert Boston/Washington University School of Medicine

Samples of the tissue are then sent to the lab to be examined under a microscope, and if cancer cells are found, the patient often has to have a second operation to remove more tissue, which is then also sent to the lab.

According to Dr. Margenthaler, about 20-25% of breast cancer patients who undergo lumpectomy need to come back for a second operation.

In 2012, British researchers writing in the BMJ describe how one fifth of women with breast cancer who choose breast conserving surgery instead of mastectomy eventually need another operation because the first operation fails to remove all of the tumor.

If the new wearable technology proves successful, it would eliminate the need for further procedures and reduce stress for patients, as well as save time and money.

Samuel Achilefu, professor of radiology and biomedical engineering at Washington University led the team that developed the device. In a paper that was published in a November 2013 issue of the Journal of Biomedical Optics, they described how the new technology helped detect tumors as small as 1 mm in diameter.

“This technology has great potential for patients and health care professionals,” says Prof. Achilefu. “Our goal is to make sure no cancer is left behind.”

Another surgeon, Ryan Fields, an assistant professor of surgery at Washington University, is planning to wear the glasses when he removes a melanoma from a patient later this month.

Prof. Achilefu is currently seeking FDA approval for a molecular agent to use with the glasses that specifically targets and stays longer in cancer cells than the one he and his colleagues used in pilot studies on mice, which is already approved by the FDA.