New lens-free microscope is a cancer diagnosis breakthrough

Researchers have built a microscope that doesn’t need a lens – and it works as well as traditional equipment.

The team, from UCLA, say it’s the first lens-free microscope that analyses tissues in 3D. When a sample of tissue or blood is placed on a slide and inserted into the device, a sensor array (on the same kind of microchip used in mobile phone cameras) records the shadows it creates. This is then turned into a hologram, giving scientists and doctors a 3D view of the sample, with any abnormalities marked in contrasting colours so they’re easy to spot.

It’s one of many smart new diagnostic devices developed in Professor Aydogan Ozcan’s engineering lab at the California university. Past projects include smartphone attachments that can analyse food for allergens or water for heavy metal toxicity, and using Google Glass to process medical test results. The lens-free microscope not only works well, its images are hundreds of times larger than conventional optical microscopes, meaning they can be analysed much more quickly, a breakthrough in the diagnosis of cancer and other diseases. ‘This is a milestone in the work we’ve been doing,’ Ozcan says.

His team trialled their device with cells known to contain cervical cancer, breast cancer, and sickle cell anaemia. An independent pathologist conducted a blind test comparing image samples from a range of microscopes including this one, and found the lens-free microscope was 99% accurate – comparable with existing, and vastly more expensive, diagnostic tools. Its inventors hope that in future it could be used in remote areas, including developing countries.

Image credit: Aydogan Ozcan.

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