Smart microscope slide makes cancer cells pop like "color TV"
The modern microscope is an incredibly powerful tool when it comes to detecting disease, but typically the biological material being studied needs to be stained or dyed to reveal its secrets. This can alter the properties of the sample and lead to misdiagnosis, but scientists at Australia's La Trobe University have been developing a new microscope slide that sidesteps this issue, and they've used it to detect breast cancer as part of an early trial.
“Current approaches to tissue imaging often rely on staining or labelling cells in order to render them visible under the microscope,” says La Trobe University's Professor Abbey, who led the project. “Even with staining or labelling, it can be challenging for pathologists to detect cancer cells, with the risk that some samples are misdiagnosed, particularly during the very early stages of disease."
Abbey's team set out to offer colorized views of mostly transparent and nearly invisible biological structures and cells without the help of dyes and stains. To do this, the researchers modified the surface of conventional microscope slides at the nanoscale, allowing them to translate very tiny changes relating to the electrical fields of the material into "striking" color contrasts.
"Recent breakthroughs in nanotechnology have allowed us to manipulate the interaction of light with biological tissue so that abnormal cells appear to have a different color to healthy ones," says Abbey. "Comparing images from our slides to conventional staining is like watching color television when all you’ve seen before is black and white.”
The scientists put their new tool, called NanoMslide, to the test diagnosing early-stage breast cancer. These trials were conducted on mouse and human tissue, with the slide enabling the researchers to easily distinguish cancerous cells from normal, healthy tissue.
“When I first looked at a tissue under the microscope on the NanoMslide, I was incredibly excited,” says study author Associate Professor Belinda Parker. “For the first time I saw cancer cells just popping up at me. They were a different color from the surrounding tissue, and it was very easy to distinguish them from surrounding cells.”
The scientists imagine with further work the technique could be a complementary tool alongside general staining, or potentially serve as a novel alternative. Ultimately, the hope is that it can enable more consistent cancer diagnoses moving forward, with the team now working toward commercialization through a spin-off company called Allesense.
“Based on our preliminary findings with the NanoMslide, we think this platform could be really useful in early breast cancer diagnosis, but also in other cancers where we're really just trying to pick up a few cancer cells in a complex tissue or a blood sample," says Parker.
The research was published in the journal Nature.
Source: La Trobe University