Heriot-Watt University announced that it is developing a new laser system that could help surgeons discern brain cancer cells in clearer resolution, allowing them to remove cancer with ultra precision, without injuring healthy surrounding tissue.
“We proved in the lab that our laser system can remove cancer cells in a way that restricts damage to the surrounding, healthy cells — within the width of a human hair,” said Prof. Jonathan Shephard, who is spearheading the collaborative research project.
The research team has successfully demonstrated the efficacy of laser surgery with colorectal cancers, and will now devise a system for brain cancers based on their understanding of lasers in colorectal cancer removal. The scientists hope to eventually develop the laser system for clinical application for head and neck cancers.
Shephard said that the key objective of any cancer procedure is ensuring that the cancer cells are entirely removed to prevent recurrence. The ability for lasers to remove cancer without hurting healthy tissue is a monumental achievement, because “even microscopic loss of healthy tissue and damage to nearby vital structures can have severe functional consequences and a huge impact on quality of life”.
The new system will be based on ultrafast picosecond lasers that “deliver energy in a series of pulses that are one trillionth of a second long”. These laser pulses are so rapid that they do not give time for heat to burn surrounding tissues, which is what occurs with existing surgical tools, Shephard said.
The Edinburgh institution will be teaming up with the University of Leeds and Leeds Teaching Hospital NHS Trust in this three-year research project on brain cancer removal using lasers, financed by a CAD$2.1 million grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).
“Surgical lasers open up exciting new approaches for cancer surgery,” said Prof. David Jayne, consultant surgeon at Leeds Teaching Hospital NHS Trust.
“The precision of a laser combined with imaging to accurately discriminate cancer from normal tissue will greatly enhance the ability of surgeons to completely remove cancers with minimal side-effects for patients”
Heriot-Watt University said that the team will also work on a flexible, optical fibre-based system that can target and remove cancer cells that are two orders of magnitude smaller than existing technology. Combining imaging tools like Fluorescence Lifetime Imaging (FLIM) and Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT) will enable surgeons to detect cancer at a microscopic scale, Shepard said.
“This is particularly important at the cancer margins, where it can be difficult to distinguish infiltrative growth from normal tissue,” he said.
Shepherd added that the optical fibre technology will “allow real-time diagnosis coupled with more complete excisional modalities in order to eradicate the disease.”
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