Lens-free microscope rivals accuracy of optical microscopes for cheaper tissue examination

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A lens-free microscope has been developed that can be used to detect the presence of cancer or other cell-level abnormalities with the same level of accuracy as larger and more expensive optical microscopes. The lens-free device, created by researchers from the University of California in the USA, could lead to less expensive and more portable technology for performing common examinations of tissue, blood and other biomedical specimens.

The lens-free microscope that can be used for high-throughput three dimensional tissue imaging - an important need in the study of disease - was described recently in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

‘This is a milestone in the work we’ve been doing,’ said Aydogan Ozcan, the associate director of UCLA’s California NanoSystems Institute and professor of Electrical Engineering and Bioengineering at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science. ‘This is the first time tissue samples have been imaged in 3D using a lens-free on-chip microscope.’

The device works by using a laser or LED to illuminate a tissue or blood sample that has been placed on a slide and inserted into the device. A sensor array on a microchip — the same type of chip that is used in digital cameras, including smartphone cameras — captures and records the pattern of shadows created by the sample.

The device processes these patterns as a series of holograms, forming three dimensional images of the specimen and giving medical personnel a virtual depth-of-field view. An algorithm colour codes the reconstructed images, making the contrasts in the samples more apparent than they would be in the holograms and making any abnormalities easier to detect.

In a blind test, a board-certified pathologist analysed sets of specimen images that had been created by the lens-free technology and by conventional microscopes. The pathologist’s diagnoses using the lens-free microscopic images proved accurate 99 per cent of the time.

A major benefit of the lens-free device is that it produces images that are several hundred times larger in area, or field of view, than those captured by conventional bright-field optical microscopes, which makes it possible to process specimens more quickly.

‘While mobile health care has expanded rapidly with the growth of consumer electronics — cellphones in particular — pathology is still, by and large, constrained to advanced clinical laboratory settings,’ Ozcan explained. ‘Accompanied by advances in its graphical user interface, this platform could scale up for use in clinical, biomedical, scientific, educational and citizen-science applications, among others.’

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Further Information

Science Translational Medicine