Diagnosing cancer in 3D with Cell-CT microscope

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University of Washington (UW) researchers reported that they have developed a new kind of microscope to visualize cells in 3D, an advancement that could bring progress to the field of early cancer detection.

Eric Seibel, PhD, a UW mechanical engineering associate professor, and his colleagues have worked in collaboration with VisionGate, a privately held company in Gig Harbor, Wash., that holds patents on the technology. The machine works by rotating the cell under the microscope lens and taking hundreds of pictures per rotation, and then digitally combining them to form a single 3D image.

The 3D visualizations could lead to "big advances in early cancer detection, since clinicians today identify cancerous cells by using 2D pictures to assess the cells' shape and size," according to the paper's authors.

The new microscope, Cell-CT, is so named because it works similarly to a CT scan -- though on a very small scale, and using visible light instead of x-rays. Also, with the Cell-CT microscope, each cell is embedded in a special gel inside a glass tube that rotates in front of a fixed camera that takes many pictures per rotation. The gel has similar optical properties to the tube's so that no light reflects off the glass. In both processes, the end result is that hundreds of pictures are assembled to form a 3D image that can be viewed and rotated on a computer screen.

"Scientists have been using fluorescent dyes in research for decades, but these techniques have not yet broken into everyday clinical diagnoses," said Seibel. "There's a big gap between the research and clinical worlds when it comes to cancer, and it's getting wider. We're trying to bridge that gap."

Part of the reason for the gap, Seibel said, is that there is no way to accurately match an image taken using the fluorescent dyes with an image taken using the traditional stains that currently form the basis for cancer diagnoses, and for which diagnostic standards exist. The new device is the first 3D microscope that can use both traditional and fluorescent stains, Seibel said.

Qin Miao, a UW bioengineering doctoral student, used a tiny plastic particle of known dimensions to show the microscope's resolution. He found that the UW group's machine has three times better accuracy in that up-down direction than standard microscopes used in cancer detection. Miao presented the group's findings for the microscope's performance on Feb. 9 at the SPIE Medical Imaging conference in Orlando, Fla.

VisionGate and the Washington Technology Center in Seattle funded the research.