Handheld gamma ray camera hunts for cancer beneath the skin

  • May 25, 2021

The portable gamma ray camera is the handiwork of researchers at Loughborough University, who have been working on the problem for a number of years.  The idea is to leverage the technology in large, complex gamma ray imaging systems that can take up entire rooms.  These involve injecting a patient with low levels of radioactive tracer particles, which are then are taken up by cancer cells and show up in the subsequent scans, forming images that reveal the size and shape of cancerous growths.

Around five (5) years ago, some of the researchers involved developed a handheld device around the size of a hairdryer that could build these images via gamma rays, albeit only in 2D (two dimensions).  They are now taking things into the 3D realm, by combining the gamma ray imaging with stereoscopic optical imaging, where two images are taken via a pinhole from slightly different angles to triangulate the distance to a subject.

The scientists liken this to the way astronomers measure the distances to stars, and this extra layer of imaging provides the extra perspective needed to turn the 2D images into 3D ones.  “We showed that it was possible to conduct handheld stereoscopic gamma imaging, which will provide 3D rather than 2D information,” says lead author Dr Sarah Bugby.  “By combining gamma and optical imaging, this 3D information will tell the user where and how deep a source of radioactivity is inside a particular material.  This has applications in radio-guided surgery – where a surgeon is looking for a source of radioactivity within the body, for example during cancer treatment and diagnosis – and may also find use in other areas in the nuclear industry.”

This Hybrid Gamma Camera, as it is known, shapes as a compact solution to gamma ray imaging, and could have a profound impact on who is able to access the diagnostic technology.  The scientists hope to collaborate with academics in Uruguay, where there are large imaging devices at only three (3) centers across the country, with the hope of getting the portable devices into more clinics for use in cancer diagnosis.  “Currently, a patient must travel to one of those centers, in some cases hundreds of kilometers away, for initial imaging, then travel back to their city of origin for surgery,” says Bugby.  “A nuclear medicine physician must travel to the city where the surgery will be performed, bringing a gamma probe, in order to help the surgeon, locate the sentinel node during surgery.  If patients cannot attend one of the nuclear medicine centers, they won’t have SLN (sentinel lymph node biopsy) performed and they will have all their axillary nodes removed with its associated morbidity, basically, a more invasive surgery than would otherwise be needed.”

The research was published in the journal Physics in Medicine & Biology.

REFERENCE:  New Atlas; 28 MAR 2021; Nick Lavars

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