Sound could be the key to better cancer diagnosis

We usually think of medical tests as involving sight or touch, but it turns out that in some cases, sound might provide a faster way to get a diagnosis – without invasive procedures or the need for a specialist referral.

A study from research network GÉANT, Birmingham City University, and the University of Central Lancashire shows that conveying data by audio signals (known as sonification) rather than traditional graphs can improve the accuracy of cell analysis.

Current scanning techniques involve firing light from lasers into cells to see how they react. This information is then turned into a computer pattern which has to be looked at to spot changes that could indicate cancer, a process which means a diagnosis can take weeks. However, turning the data into audio signals instead makes it easier and quicker for researchers to classify different cell types.

This means that in future, you could get a diagnosis (or the all-clear) from your GP in the space of one appointment. And it wouldn’t involve probes or scanning machines or long needles, just a simple audio feedback device designed to detect specific sounds. Where cancer is discovered, patients should then be able to start treatment more quickly, brilliant news considering the wait for cancer tests is now at a six-year high.

The technique could also allow for safer surgeries. Using an audio diagnostic tool would help a surgeon ensure they haven’t left any cancerous cell behind, meaning treatment is more likely to be a success. Ryan Stables, a researcher for the School of Digital Media Technology in Birmingham, who lead the study, said: ‘This method of identifying cancerous cells is similar to that of using a metal detector. It allows you to identify the characteristics of cancer in real-time, which we hope could have life-changing implications.’

Unlike a metal detector, however, there won’t be constant annoying screeching if the device finds something. Domenico Vicinanza was responsible for the sonification and worked to make the sounds bearable. (He explains more about the process in this video.)

The team will go on to investigate how their research could be used for diagnosing and treating other illnesses.

Diane Shipley