Issue #118
October 2021
Smart microscope slides detect cancer

An innovative microscope slide, NanoMSlide, developed at La Trobe University in Melbourne, is promising to revolutionise cancer diagnosis after researchers demonstrated that it can be used to detect breast cancer cells in patients. Professor Sandra O’Toole has been part of a team which has spent the past five years developing this new technology. She explains how this new slide could complement existing stains currently in use, to assist with quicker and more accurate cancer diagnoses.

“When we take tissues from a human body and process them onto microscope slides, the sections are cut very finely and are essentially translucent. If you look down the microscope without any extra chemicals added, you can’t see very much at all. Therefore, a series of chemicals (most of which came from clothing dyes over one hundred years ago) are applied to the tissue on standard glass microscope slides. These dyes are taken up differently by different parts of cells, which allows Pathologists to determine which tissue they’re looking at, whether there is cancer there, and all the other important things that are needed to make a diagnosis and therefore determine subsequent treatment and outcomes.

“Our recent study showed that by modifying the surface of conventional microscope slides at the nanoscale, biological structures and cells show striking colour contrast which can be used to instantly detect disease. This new NanoMSlide microscope slide has a sub-microscopic grid with tiny little nanoscale holes. When light from a standard microscope passes through this grid and illuminates the tissue, light is transmitted differentially (depending on the nature of the tissue), resulting in colour changes, without any stains being added,” said Prof O’Toole.

In the study, researchers at La Trobe teamed up with a group of researchers at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and the Garvan Institute of Medical Research to trial this new technology as an aid to diagnosing early-stage breast cancer. Based on the preliminary findings, it is thought that the platform could be useful in early breast cancer diagnosis, and also in other cancers.

“We realised that there are numerous potential uses for this new technology. One of the more challenging areas in breast cancer is knowing when the line is crossed from a lesion which is just proliferating to one that is actually cancer, because the treatment and outcomes are very different for patients at that point. It can be difficult for experts to decide when this line has been crossed, for example when a patient just needs to be observed closely or when they may need more extensive treatment, including a mastectomy. It is a really high stakes decision. My role in this study, therefore, was to assess breast tissues using this new slide and compare it to other new techniques.

“This early proof of concept certainly seems very promising. The cancer cells appear to have very different properties when put on top of this grid and really stand out. Also, because no further processing is required, it is very quick. The extra tests we currently perform can add days or more to the process so if patients need a rapid diagnosis and ongoing treatment, that can be a significant delay. We’re hopeful that with further studies this technology will prove to be a useful addition to the tools currently available to help Pathologists to make a quick and accurate diagnosis in a whole range of areas. We started off in breast cancer because that’s where our interest lies, but I think there are many other areas to look at to see if we can improve diagnosis using this technology,” said Prof O’Toole.



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