Cancer is a nasty disease and sadly takes the lives of millions of people each year. Even though various forms of cancer are treatable, or even curable, its prognosis deteriorates if the disease remains unnoticed for a long time. Ideally, diagnostic tools would provide us with a level of sensitivity that allows us to detect cancer even if only a few cells have yet gone bad. This is however not a realistic scenario: most equipment will not notice a tumour unless it has attained a certain size. A new screening attempt developed by the University of California in Las Vegas has developed a system that scans cells individually and thereby greatly increased sensitivity compared to conventional scanners. Their system relies on a high-speed camera that takes pictures of cells.
A camera capable of taking 6 million pictures per second was used to develop the diagnostic tool. It was already made in 2009, and it has been the world's fastest camera for a while. Normally, clinicians use a flow cytometer to assess the qualities of individual cells, but this is not precise enough to detect all characteristics. The aforementioned camera was combined with a flow cytometer, which lets cells pass through a tube one by one. While the cells were passing through the tube, the camera took pictures, eventually reaching up to 100.000 cells per second.
A special storage mechanism and real-time imaging allows for quick analysis of the pictures. Using the camera coupled with a flow cytometer, throughput is around 100 times faster than conventional diagnostic systems. Special software was used to assess whether there were any detectable anomalies. By taking pictures, the diagnostic system shows more detail than a conventional flow cytometer, and higher throughput means that clinicians are able to analyse more cells, increasing the chance that existing cancerous cells are discovered.
According to the scientists, their system can help to reduce costs and reduce the number of errors in diagnostics. However, more experiments and clinical tests are necessary, because so far the scientists only tested their camera system with laboratory blood. Additionally, the system will only work for forms of cancer that allow for easy extraction of cells from the body, in order to pass them through a flow cytometer. That means it is most likely to be used for cancers of the blood, such as leukaemia.