ENGINEERING NEWS

Early Detection to Beat Cancer

Vadim Backman’s new screening technologies hold promise for dramatic changes in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer

Backman’s potentially life-saving technology, called nanocytology, works by harnessing the power of light to examine cells from easily accessible areas of the body.

Northwestern Engineering’s Vadim Backman has developed a new suite of tools for cancer detection and diagnostics that could reduce cancer deaths by ten fold.

“If you look closely at the nature of cancer research throughout the world, greater than 90 percent is focused on tumors,” said Backman, the Walter Dill Scott Professor of Biomedical Engineering. “The question we’re asking in our research is very different.”

A vast treatment gulf separates stage-four cancer, which is almost untreatable, and stage one, where survival is close to 100 percent. The problem is that early-stage cancers rarely exhibit symptoms, so physicians have no indication to treat them. That’s why, Backman said, early screening and diagnosis are the only ways to win the war on cancer.

Backman’s potentially life-saving technology, called nanocytology, works by harnessing the power of light to examine cells from easily accessible areas of the body. A simple swab of cells from one area, such as the inside of a cheek, can uncover malignancies in a nearby organ, such as the lungs.

When researchers shine light onto the harvested cells, photons bounce off the nanostructures within them. The different angles of scattered light tell a story about the health of cells, which upon analysis can lead to an accurate diagnosis at even the very earliest stages of cancer formation. Using these bio-optic techniques, Backman can detect details indicative of “pre” pre-cancer, something that formerly could not be done with conventional microscopes. 

Watch a video that explains the technology here.

Catching pre-cancer at this early stage—when small dysfunctions just begin to percolate within the cells—could possibly lead to treatment before the formation of tumors and the aggressive spread of disease.