This Hand-Held, Pen-Sized Microscope Could Spot Cancer in Moments


A new study is bringing non-invasive cancer detection to the forefront with a new microscope.

A group of scientists from the University of Washington's Department of Mechanical Engineering, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Barrow Neurological Institute at St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center and Stanford University's School of Medicine have come together to devise a microscope that can see cell detail without having to extract it from a patient's body.

The special microscope, with a tip diameter of just 12 millimeters, can help doctors recognize cancer in patients while they're sitting in front of them. Using a dual-axis confocal microscope, scientists can get closeups of cells that are up to half a millimeter beyond the surface, reports

"There have been other confocal microscopes that have been miniaturized in the past, but they have all required various trade-offs in imaging speed, imaging depth, image quality, etc.," Jonathan Liu, the paper's senior author and an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at University of Washington, tells Mic via email. But using the dual-axis confocal method, Liu and his team were able to develop a way to illuminate cells in just the right way. "It allows us to filter out the background light in order to visualize the tissue more clearly at the specific depth that we are interested in looking at." 

The Optical Society

Why doctors want this: Right now, a biopsy is required to determine whether or not a person has cancer. Biopsies can either be minimally invasive or surgical depending on the location of the tissue. In both cases, it takes a lot of work and time to process the sample. Once in hand, the tissue must be sliced up, adhered to a slide, stained and reviewed, all of which is laborious and requires doctors to deliver a patient results long after their appointment. 

Though a process in which the biopsied sample is frozen can reduce the time it takes to come to conclusions about patient tissue, that still doesn't allow doctors to provide immediate care. Especially with late-stage cancers, immediate action can be crucial to a patient's survival. 

More importantly, the tool can also be used to help fully remove cancerous tissue in a surgical setting. Right now extricating cancer is a bit of a guessing game for doctors. 

"Right now, neurosurgeons rely on their sense of sight and their sense of touch to determine what tissue is cancer and what tissue is normal brain," Liu tells Mic. "Pre-operative imaging, such as MRI, provides a rough map of where the tumor is within the brain, but is not very accurate for guiding the final and most-crucial stages of the surgery." Using the microscope, surgeons can better visualize where the cancerous cells are, thus better ensuring that they are getting it all out.

Researchers plan to continue testing the microscope for detecting cancer and hope to roll it out in clinical settings in the next two to four years, reports

Jan. 26, 2016, 2:05 pm: This story has been updated to incorporate statements from Jonathan Liu.