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World's fastest camera detects elusive cancer cells

UCLA researchers say their optical microscope can detect rare cells with sensitivity of one part per million -- in real time.

Modifications to the world's fastest camera are enabling the real-time identification of rare breast cancer cells in blood, with a record low false-positive rate of one cell in a million, according to new research out of UCLA.


"This technology can significantly reduce errors and costs in medical diagnosis," lead author Keisuke Goda, a UCLA program manager in electrical engineering and bioengineering, said in a school news release.

The team's approach could not only pave the way for earlier detection of cancer and monitoring of drug and radiation therapy but also prove useful in urine analysis, water quality monitoring, and more.

The results of the study, published in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, were obtained by mixing lab-grown cancer cells with blood in various proportions that mimic cancer patient blood.

The team's optical microscope, which was first developed in 2009 as the fastest continuous-running camera in the world, improves on the current gold standard for cellular analysis -- called flow-cytometry -- which relies on single-point light scattering instead of a picture. This means it can't examine millions of cells fast enough to catch the circulating cancer cells that spread cancer.

The UCLA tech, however, integrates their 2009 camera with advanced microfluidics and real-time image processing to classify cells in blood samples, and boasts a throughput of 100,000 cells a second. The team says this is roughly 100 times faster than conventional analyzers.

"To catch these elusive cells, the camera must be able to capture and digitally process millions of images continuously at a very high frame rate," Bahram Jalali, of the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science, said in the news release. "Conventional ... cameras are not fast and sensitive enough. It takes time to read the data from the array of pixels, and they become less sensitive to light at high speed."

The researchers are now performing clinical tests to further validate their findings. What their tech will cost, and how long it will take to ready it for prime time, remains to be seen.