Getting tested for cancer is never a pleasant experience. For example, cancer of the esophagus is frequently diagnosed via a biopsy, a procedure in which tissue is extracted from the body.
Needless to say, this hardly sounds like anyone’s idea of fun. But what if a replacement device could greatly reduce the need for such tests? Thanks to researchers from Houston’s Rice University, doctors may have a new tool at their disposal for diagnosing esophageal cancer.
The Rice team refers to their product as a microendoscope. It consists of a fiber optic cable only 1 millimeter in diameter, a high-powered fluorescence microscope and a standard-size endoscope. Images from inside the esophagus are carried to the microscope via the optic cable, while a tablet computer provides an endoscopist with a real-time look at esophageal tissues.
Furthermore, the device’s microscope system allows for a high quality view of cells, enabling doctors to determine if such cells have become cancerous. The microendoscope is powered by a battery and is relatively simple to use, as only a small amount of training is needed to learn how to use this piece of equipment. Assuming it is approved for widespread use, the Rice team further notes that their device would represent a much cheaper option for esophageal cancer diagnosis than biopsies.
A Better Alternative?
The capabilities of the microendoscope were then tested with the cooperation of 147 subjects. At the beginning of the study, all of these individuals had tissue lesions which were thought to be potentially cancerous. The participants were recruited from a total of four hospitals; one in New York state, one in Texas and two in China. In addition to including researchers from Rice University, the report also featured contributors from New York’s Mt. Sinai Medical Center, the National Cancer Institute and the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences.
Every participant was not only analyzed with an endoscope, but also with the microendoscope, its newly-created rival. If the former indicated cancer, biopsies were taken to further check for the presence of malignant tumors. It was eventually determined that nearly 60 percent of these tissue extractions yielded no evidence of cancer, or even precancer. Moreover, the research team estimates that 90 percent of the ultimately unneeded biopsies could have been prevented with the microendoscope.
In a press release describing the team’s work, senior author Rebecca Richards-Kortum said the following: “For patients, biopsies are stressful and sometimes painful. In addition, in low-resource settings, pathology costs frequently exceed endoscopy costs. So the microendoscope could both improve patient outcomes and provide a significant cost-saving advantage if used in conjunction with a traditional endoscope.”