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This enables all the cancerous tissue to be cut out at once – removing the risk of repeat operations or spread. Costing less than £150, it is based on the morpho butterfly’s eyes, which are among the most complex in the animal kingdom.
It has already been successfully tested on patients with breast cancer, following initial experiments on mice.
The morpho butterfly is found in rainforests. It is only active during the day and its sight has evolved to be highly sensitive to the Sun’s infrared light, allowing it to see over great distances.
Computer engineer Professor Viktor Gruev, of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said: “By looking at the way nature has designed the visual systems of insects, we can address serious problems that exist with cancer surgery today and make sure there are no cancer cells left behind during surgery.
“This technology is more sensitive, more accurate, much smaller and lower-cost than currently available instruments that are FDA (Food and Drug Administration) approved to detect these signals.”
It is often impossible to tell where a tumour ends and healthy tissue begins meaning cancerous cells often remain, necessitating further surgery.
Study leader Prof Gruev wondered if they could be more easily found by looking through the eyes of the morpho butterfly.
Mainly found in South and Central America and Mexico, it is so called because its iridescent wings make it appear to change shape during flight.
Prof Gruev said many surgeons rely on sight and touch to find cancerous tissue during surgery.
The morpho butterfly’s eye has specialised nanostructures that allow it to see multispectral images, including near infrared.
Prof Gruev and colleagues built their camera mimicking these qualities, creating a small camera that can simultaneously register regular colour images and near infrared signals without needing to dim the room lights.
To make it easy for a surgeon to use, the researchers integrated the camera with surgical goggles.
Prof Gruev said: “The surgeon puts on the goggles that have integrated our bio-inspired camera technology, and it will protect their eyes and at the same time project the fluorescent information whenever they want it.
“The goggles are also incredibly low-cost. We anticipate it to cost around $200 (£142), compared with $20,000 (£14,200) for the cheapest FDA-approved instrument.”
The camera described in Optica was able to find breast-cancer in mice, using a near-infrared fluorescent dye that binds specifically to the type of tumour they had.
Since the camera can pick up signals beneath the surface of the tissue, the surgeons could even locate tumor sites through the skin.
First author Dr Missael Garcia said: “We could image before the incision and identify the potential points of interest to minimise the incision.”
Then they tested it on breast cancer patients where doctors need to find and remove all the lymph nodes surrounding a tumour to see if the cells have spread.
Before the surgery the women were injected with a green dye containing a protein that attaches specifically to cancer cells.
The dyed cells emit an infrared signal that cannot be seen by the human eye, but is detected by the camera in the goggles worn by the surgeons.
The researchers compared how well the physicians could identify the lymph nodes in a patient with breast cancer by looking for green colour by eye, and then looking for the infrared signal using the butterfly’s-eye camera.
Prof Gruev said: “Our technology is much quicker because one of the advantages is imaging deeper in the tissue.
“Sometimes when they are looking for green colouration, they are looking for a while because the nodes are below the surface.
“With the fluorescence, you can see through the skin or the tissue and identify them much quicker.”
The camera also found lymph nodes in two patients that the surgeons did not see visually – and the nodes turned out to be cancerous.
Prof Gruev said: “I would love to see green fluorescence to become the standard for lymph node mapping.
“It has a huge merit, compared with what’s currently being done to locate lymph nodes.”
The researchers have filed for a patent on the technology.
They are now planning to integrate their camera with endoscopes – a long tube put down a patient’s throat to examine the lining of the digestive system.
The study was published in the journal Optica.