If the preliminary success of the "optical biopsy" is confirmed through clinical trials, such a device could ultimately provide a particular advantage for early diagnosis, treatment and prevention of many types of cancer, according to the researchers. The vast majority of cancers start in the body's epithelial cells, which line the mucous membranes in the lungs, esophagus and gut.
"About 85 percent of all cancers start in the epithelium. It may be, for example, brain cancer that causes a patient's death, but that cancer might have originated in the colon or other site of epithelial tissue," said Adam Wax, professor of biomedical engineering. "Being able to detect pre-cancer in epithelial tissues would therefore help prevent all types of cancer by catching it early, before it has a chance to develop further or spread."
In some instances, the technique, known as "fa/LCI" (frequency-domain angle-resolved low coherence interferometry), might ultimately enable doctors and their patients to avoid removal of tissue for biopsy, Wax said. In other instances, he added, fa/LCI could help physicians pinpoint suspicious cells during a traditional biopsy procedure, making it less likely for a cancerous lesion to escape detection.
Wax and his former graduate student John Pyhtila reported in the March 2007 issue of Gastrointestinal Endoscopy that their fiber-optic device reliably differentiated between healthy and precancerous digestive tissue taken from the stomach and esophagus of three patients known to have a precancerous form of a condition called Barrett's esophagus. In less than a second, their fa/LCI-enhanced version of an endoscope, instruments used to visualize internal organs, provided the clinical information