Lab Canada

Optical technology to provide more accurate cancer diagnosis and treatment

Vancouver, BC – Researchers at the BC Cancer Agency have developed a new technology to provide more accurate visual diagnosis and treatment of certain cancers. Digital illumination provides precise, dynamic control of light intensity and wavelengths that allows better detection of changes in tissue at a molecular level.

This new technology, the spectrally programmable light engine (SPLE) is featured as the cover story in this month’s edition of Applied Optics. The engine works by taking light from a bright source, directing it through a prism and projecting the resulting rainbow spectrum onto a chip with millions of tiny mirrors. This chip is usually used to create digital images, and is commonly found in digital projectors and newer digital televisions.

Instead of using the chip to create images, BC Cancer Agency researcher use it to control portions of the spectrum, creating a light whose intensity and wavelength can be controlled with extreme precision. This innovation replaces the old “mechanical light” technology of moving glass filters in front of light sources and then controlling the exposure with mechanical shutters.

While x-rays and MRIs can identify structural changes, light interacts directly at the molecular level, and can detect early biochemical changes in tissue long before they would be detected structurally. Advances in genomics, proteomics, and molecular biology have led to many new optical tools and techniques to detect subtle changes in tissue that can allow early diagnosis and intervention.

“Many medical devices use for treatment and diagnosis,” explains Nick MacKinnon, a researcher at the BC Cancer Agency, who has led a team to develop SPLE. “More and more, digital imaging systems are part of this light-based technology. The advent of digital illumination will allow existing technologies to work much better.”

This technology can regulate the wavelength and intensity of light in medical equipment used to help medical practitioners to differentiate between healthy and diseased tissues. It has applications for diagnosis, disease staging, or surgical procedures for many cancers, including breast, oral and cervical cancers.

“Consider the possible future,” he says. “A physician performing a gastroscopy with the SPLE sees an area of interest, and switches to the advanced diagnostic mode, rapidly scanning through a number of illumination profiles, to determine whether the tissue is cancerous, and even the stage and appropriate treatment. The doctor could then immediately apply a topical light-activated drug and then digitally select the wavelength to activate it.

While the technology is not currently in clinical use, the BC Cancer Agency is working on a technology transfer agreement with a private company for commercial development. He expects that clinical trials could be underway by the end of this year or early next year.