Cancer watch

University of Hong Kong scientists reveal new ultra-fast laser technology that could slash cancer diagnosis times

It could replace X-ray as first-step medical screening process, but must first go through years of clinical trials

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 April, 2017, 3:20pm
UPDATED : Monday, 24 April, 2017, 11:56pm

Scientists at the University of Hong Kong have developed laser technology that may dramatically reduce cancer diagnosis times from one week to just two minutes through ultra-fast cell imaging.

Pending US patent approval, it uses a pair of parallel “infinity mirrors” to create a high-speed sweeping laser beam that processes images 100 times faster than other technologies, HKU scientists revealed on Monday.

The technology could be adapted for medical imaging, such as microscopes, and open new areas of study on complex brain issues, such as Alzheimer’s disease, according to Dr Kevin Tsia Kin-man, associate professor at HKU’s department of electrical and electronic engineering.

It could also be applied to biological science research or the manufacturing industry, he said.

“Generating images much faster than existing microscopes, which use mechanically steered mirrors, the technology could be an effective and efficient tool to analyse individual cells at high speed,” Tsia said. “I believe it could provide a more accurate diagnosis with a technique widely used in tumour screenings, such as breast cancer.”

For example, he said, X-ray scanning was traditionally the first step in breast cancer screening before a biopsy test, but the technique was largely inaccurate.

Instead of X-rays, the new laser technology could offer a more accurate first-step screening process through a quick blood cell analysis.

Each blood sample contains around 10 million cells, and detecting cancer cells can take up to one week using existing technology that can only scan 10 cells per second.

But the new laser technique can scan 100,000 cells per second, completing the same task in just two minutes, according to its designers.

HKU will work with Queen Mary Hospital to test the technology, but three to five years of clinical trials are expected before it can be widely used for medical diagnosis in Hong Kong hospitals.

In the longer term, it has implications for tackling diseases such as Alzheimer’s, since the cellular dynamics of such conditions are too high-speed to be detected using the old technology.

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Tsia said they had overcome the current limitations in laser scanning technology, which usually employed mechanical scanning mirrors to steer the direction of laser beams – meaning speed was restricted by mechanical inertia under the laws of physics.

Using a pair of parallel “infinity mirrors” could allow ultra-fast, sweeping laser beaming, he said.

The research team’s next challenge would be to deal with the huge amount of image data, but Tsia suggested artificial intelligence could play a role in such cases.

The cost of building a microscope with the new laser scanning technology would be similar to that of existing ones, according to Tsia, while current microscopes could also be rebuilt with the new mirrors.

The findings were first published in the optics and photonics journal Light: Science and Applications in January.

Meanwhile, Tsia recently became one of two academics in Hong Kong out of 98 awardees to receive the 14th Chinese Science and Technology Award for Young Scientists for 2016.

The award aims to recognise young scientists in China with exceptional accomplishments in natural science research.