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Surgeons at the University
of Washington used the camera
to look for cancerous lymph
nodes in patients with breast cancer

New camera inspired by butterfly eyes helps surgeons remove all cancerous tissue

by Lauren Dubinsky , Senior Reporter
The eye of a morpho butterfly is the inspiration behind a new camera that has been designed to help surgeons find and remove all cancerous tissue.

“The physicians love this technology because it is compact, does not intrude in their workflow, is more sensitive than FDA-approved instruments and they don’t have to dim the surgical lights when using our camera,” Viktor Gruev, professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), told HCB News. “I think the low cost will also enable wide use of this technology around the world.”

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Many surgeons rely on sight and touch to find cancerous tissue, but large hospitals can afford expensive, specialized displays and experimental near-infrared fluorescent agents that bind to tumors. That equipment is large and requires dim lights, which makes it hard for the surgeons to see.

There are nanostructures within the morpho butterfly’s eye that enable it to see multispectral images, including near-infrared. Gruev and his team created the camera with those same nanostructures so it can register color images and near-infrared signals without needing to dim the lights.

The team then took things once step further and integrated the camera with surgical goggles. Gruev estimates that the goggles will cost around $200 compared to $20,000 for the cheapest FDA-approved instrument for this indication.

He explained that the butterfly-eye camera technology is significantly cheaper because its imaging sensor and filters are integrated into a single chip. Anytime there is “monolithic integration” the cost drops.

“FDA-approved instruments use multiple optical components and cameras to realize the same functionality,” said Gruev. “Since more components are used, the accuracy is typically compromised in these instruments which further increases the cost of the instrument”

Gruev’s team at UIUC partnered with surgeons at Washington University in St. Louis to test the camera both in mice and human patients. The near-infrared fluorescent dye bound to the specific type of breast cancer the mice had, and the camera could locate tumor sites through the skin.

For the clinical test, the camera was used to find sentinel lymph nodes in 11 human patients with breast cancer. The researchers compared how well surgeons could identify the lymph nodes by looking for green color with the naked eye and looking for the infrared signal with the butterfly-eye camera.

They found that the camera is much quicker at identifying cancerous tissue than the visual approach because it can image deep in the tissue. The camera also found cancerous lymph nodes in two of the patients that the surgeons missed visually.

The research team filed a patent for the butterfly-eye camera technology and is now working on integrating the camera with endoscopic camera systems.

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