The process of identifying cancer—from taking a sample of a tumor to getting the results back from a laboratory—can be long-winded. When there isn’t time for all that, this new hand-held microscope could help doctors identify cancer cells in just a few moments.

Designed by University of Washington mechanical engineers for use in operating theaters and doctors’ offices, the device is said to be capable of allowing a trained medic to identify cancerous tissue. The team suggests that a brain surgeon could use it to check that they’d removed all cancerous traces of a tumor, say, or a dentist could quickly check if an abscess was cancerous to minimize the concerns of their patient.

The device itself uses a technique that’s known as “dual-axis confocal microscopy” to achieve sharp focus even a little way into opaque materials. As a result, it can resolve cellular details even up to half a millimeter beneath the surface of tissue. The images are created faster than usual by quickly scanning a light beam across the surface using micro-electrical-mechanical mirrors to build up lines of the image.

In the pictures below, you can see how the images created by the handheld device, in each case on the left, compare to one created by a multi-day process at a clinical pathology laboratory on the right. Obviously it’s not quite as good, but the results, published in Biomedical Optics Express, are impressive.

This Pen-Sized Microscope Could Spot Cancer in Your Doctor's Office

Indeed, what doctors would be looking for are variations in sub-cellular details, which tell cancerous cells apart form healthy. You can see in the images that the new devices offers that kinds of insight—with the cell nuclei showing up particularly well.

The researchers hope to carry out a series of clinical tests, and roll it out in health centers within 2 to 4 years.

[Biomedical Optics Express via PhysOrg]

Image by Dennis Wise/University of Washington