Mapping the way to faster cancer diagnosis

Instrument and method for future diagnostics in pathology

Mapping the way to faster cancer diagnosis

“We now have a prototype of the instrument capable of generating this map, which can be compared to a topographical image with variations in ´altitude’ that correspond to the degree of stiffness in the tissue sample. We also have a number of research articles showing that we can distinguish between healthy tissue and cancer cells”, says Britt Andersson.

She is a postdoctoral senior researcher with expertise in material physics, electronics and medical engineering at Umeå University.

Time to scale up the technique

Current histopathological analyses of tissue samples, for example to detect diseases such as prostate cancer, are conducted manually by studying microscopy images. The process takes a long time and requires great professional experience – while the shortage of pathologists continues to increase. In the USA alone, a shortfall of 6 000 pathologists is expected by 2025.

It is high time for a major technical breakthrough, capable of accelerating and improving these analyses.

Vibrations generate a map

“Our unique product is an instrument that scans the surface of a tissue sample. The instrument itself is an extremely thin rod that is made to vibrate. When the rod is passed over the surface of the tissue sample, the vibrations vary depending on the mechanical properties of the cells, i.e. depending on the degree of stiffness. By measuring the differences in the vibrations, we can generate a map image showing the variations in stiffness in a thin tissue sample”, explains Britt Andersson.

Proven function

To start with, the new type of images could speed up the current analyses and, together with traditional microscopy images, provide safer diagnoses. The method also enables a high degree of automatisation and could eventually replace manual analyses.

In studies, Britt Andersson and her team have shown that the method really can distinguish healthy tissue from diseased tissue in the prostate. Colleagues in Japan used the method on blood vessel walls, showing that it could distinguish the mechanical properties of the cells in this type of tissue as well.

Five year perspective

“Internationally, there is competition in the form of companies working on the automatisation of image analysis, but better algorithms are required for these methods to be effective. Research has been underway for many years but no such method is currently in commercial use, as far as we know.”

Support from Swelife has meant important help with feedback and contacts. In spring 2018, a study will be launched in which the methods will be used to complement analysis of patients with suspected prostate cancer.

“Within five years, I expect us to have developed the product and to have got closer to a commercial launch”, says Britt Andersson.

Text: Jörgen Olsson

Updated: 11 December 2017