A tool that will enable surgeons to detect malignant breast cancer tissue during surgery using new imaging techniques has been developed by researchers at The University of Western Australia and the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research.
The new tool allows surgeons to assess the thin rim of healthy tissue, known as the “surgical margin”, to ensure that an entire tumour has been removed during surgery and does not recur. The technology has the potential to spare thousands of breast cancer patients the burden of a second surgery and become an important new addition to the clinical toolkit.
The researchers have named their innovative technique “Optical coherence micro-elastography” (OCME) and described their latest developments in a paper written by PhD student Wes Allen, from UWA’s School of Electrical, Electronic and Computer Engineering and the Perkins. The paper was published in Biomedical Optics Express and highlighted by the Optical Society, a leading professional organisation in the field of optics.
OCME forms high-resolution images of how tissue feels. This is achieved by applying a mechanical force to the tissue and measuring how much the tissue deforms using the imaging technique, optical coherence tomography. The stiffness of the tissue at each point is then mapped into an image, referred to as an elastogram.
Dr Brendan Kennedy, a senior research fellow with UWA’s School of Electrical, Electronic and Computer Engineering, who heads the research team at the Perkins, said incomplete removal of cancerous tissue was a major issue in breast-conserving surgery.
“This tool will provide surgeons with feedback about whether malignant tissue exists in the surgical margin while the patient is still in the operating room,” Dr Kennedy said. “Ultimately, we believe that the technology can be translated into a handheld probe that can be used during surgery.
“The potential widespread impact of this tool is attributed to the collaborative, cross-disciplinary nature of our research group. By working closely with surgeons and pathologists, we have developed a good understanding of what they need.
“As engineers, we can develop fantastic tools with high resolution, but if they’re not solving the clinical problem that the surgeons tell us about, they’re not going to have a lasting impact.”
The research is part funded by the Australian Research Council, Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council, Australia’s National Breast Cancer Foundation, Cancer Council Western Australia, the Department of Health, Western Australia and a scholarship from the William and Marlene Schrader Trust of UWA.