Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed a new imaging system that enables high-speed, three-dimensional (3-D) imaging of microscopic pre-cancerous changes in the esophagus or colon. The new system, described in the Optical Society’s (OSA) open access journal Biomedical Optics Express, is based on an emerging technology called optical coherence tomography (OCT), which offers a way to see below the surface with 3-D, microscopic detail in ways that traditional screening methods can’t.
Endoscopy is the method of choice for cancer screening of the colon or esophagus. In the procedure, a tiny camera attached to a long thin tube is snaked into the colon or down the throat, giving doctors a relatively non-invasive way to look for abnormalities. But standard endoscopy can only examine the surface of tissues, and thus may miss important changes occurring inside tissue that indicate cancer development.
OCT, which can examine tissue below the surface, is analogous to medical ultrasound imaging except that it uses light instead of sound waves to visualize structures in the body in real time, and with far higher resolution; OCT can visualize structures just a few millionths of a meter in size. Over the past two decades, OCT has become commonplace in ophthalmology, where it is being used to generate images of the retina and to help diagnose and monitor diseases like glaucoma, and has emerging applications in cardiology, where it’s used to examine unstable plaques in blood vessels that can trigger heart attacks.
The new endoscopic OCT imaging system reported by OCT pioneer James G. Fujimoto of MIT and his colleagues, works at record speeds, capturing data at a rate of 980 frames (equivalent to 480,000 axial scans) per second — nearly 10 times faster than previous devices — while imaging microscopic features less than 8 millionths of a meter in size.
At such high speeds and super-fine resolution, the novel system promises to enable 3-D microscopic imaging of pre-cancerous changes in the esophagus or colon and the guidance of endoscopic therapies. Esophageal and colon cancer are diagnosed in more than 1.5 million people worldwide each year, according to the American Cancer Society.
“Ultrahigh-speed imaging is important because it enables the acquisition of large three-dimensional volumetric data sets with micron-scale resolution,” says Fujimoto, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science and senior author of the paper.
“This new system represents a significant advance in real-time, 3-D endoscopic OCT imaging in that it offers the highest volumetric imaging speed in an endoscopic setting, while maintaining a small probe size and a low, safe drive voltage,” says Xingde Li, associate professor at the Whitaker Biomedical Engineering Institute and Department of Biomedical Engineering at Johns Hopkins University, who is not affiliated with the research team.