Optical biopsies: a new method to detect cancer cells in lymph nodes

July 10th, 2012

Associate Professor Robert McLaughlin and his team at the University of Western Australia are investigating a novel method of detecting cancer cells in lymph nodes without the need for invasive surgery.

Robert-McLaughlin_300_300Currently, doctors need to surgically remove lymph nodes from women with breast cancer to examine if cancer cells have spread beyond the breast tissue. Surgery can have major complications, is often painful and can lead to lymphoedema or excessive swelling in some patients.

As surgery is invasive and often leads to debilitating side effects, Associate Professor McLaughlin aims to use new technology to detect cancerous cells in a patient’s lymph nodes before they are removed surgically. Associate Professor McLaughlin is applying new 3D medical imaging technology, Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT), to provide detailed information about the cells, vessels and tissues which lie under the skin.

OCT is extremely sensitive and can provide researchers and doctors with critical information about lymph nodes. For example, OCT will be able to show structures within the lymph nodes, helping doctors to identify abnormalities. This has the potential to make surgery safer and reduce the risk of missing cancerous cells during surgery.

Associate Professor McLaughlin used specialised visualisation software to compare current images with new 3D OCT images of lymph nodes in breast cancer patients who had lymph nodes removed during surgery. His findings showed that OCT is sensitive enough to detect regions of cancer within the lymph nodes. Moreover, the results correlated extremely well with those obtained by traditional surgical methods, emphasising the accuracy of the new technique.

Associate Professor McLaughlin will now refine the technique further so it can be applied in clinical settings.