Needle microscope pinpoints cancer cells, offering fresh hope to breast cancer patients

Researchers at the University of Western Australia have developed the world’s smallest hand-held microscope capable of detecting cancer cells often missed by surgeons during operations.

The microscope can be used to capture 3D images through a tiny lens, less than a third of a millimetre wide, which fits inside a needle.

Currently being tested on human tissue samples, Associate Professor Robert McLaughlin of UWA says it could help prevent the trauma of repeat surgery in breast cancer patients.

Often tumours can produce very small areas just outside the main tumour mass that surgeons can’t see or feel and so unfortunately many cancer patients go through several surgeries to take out the cancer cells that were missed.

“The goal of our research is to make something to help the surgeons so that during surgery they can make sure they’re getting all the cancer out,” he said.

While primarily intended for breast cancer surgery, the images that this microscope provides could benefit surgeons around the world.

“We’ve recently started working with a neurosurgeon in Toronto who’s taking brain biopsies,” Associate Professor McLaughlin said.

And furthermore: “If we can understand what’s going on in the lungs with diseases like emphysema then maybe we can help scientists develop better drugs to treat those sorts of diseases,” Associate Professor McLaughlin added.

If current pre-clinical trials for the microscope are successful, clinical trials for breast cancer patients will be rolled out in Australia with-in the next two years. Following this, the needle microscopes could then be made available around the globe within a decade.