Researchers have detected oral cancer cells using a fiber-optic cable and an off-the-shelf Olympus E-330 camera worth $400. The work by Rice University biomedical engineers and researchers from the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center could improve access to diagnostic imaging tools in many parts of the world where these expensive resources are scarce.

In the tests, a common fluorescent dye was used to make cell nuclei glow brightly and images taken using tip of the fiber-optic bundle attached to the camera. The distorted nuclei which indicate cancerous and pre-cancerous cells could then be distinguished on the camera's LCD monitor.

The team tested cancer cell cultures from a lab, tissue samples from newly resected tumors and the healthy tissue in the mouths mouths of patients.

Not only does the portability and low cost of the system promise benefits – having a pencil-sized cable placed in your mouth is also a better option for patients than a biopsy. The researchers also believe that software could be written to allow medical professionals other than pathologists to use the device.

"Consumer-grade cameras can serve as powerful platforms for diagnostic imaging," said Rice's Rebecca Richards-Kortum, the study's lead author. "Based on portability, performance and cost, you could make a case for using them both to lower health care costs in developed countries and to provide services that simply aren't available in resource-poor countries."

Co-authors of the paper include Dongsuk Shin and Mark Pierce, both of Rice, and Ann Gillenwater and Michelle Williams, both of the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health.

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