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Flashlight-Sized Probe Can Spot Cancer Cells in Real Time

Malignant tumor strongholds and their microscopic spies can’t hide in the thicket of flesh much longer, for surgeons have a new weapon: a device that sheds light on their location. Literally.

“Any state of disease will alter the cells and molecules in our body,” said Dr. Stephen Boppart, a professor of bioengineering at the University of Illinois who invented the device. Every molecule scatters light different ways, he said, “leaving a distinct optical scattering signature.” The new device senses cancer cells’ unique signatures, letting surgeons know which areas around the tumor are cancerous and which are safe to leave alone.

The tissues surrounding a tumor, known as the margin, are a hot spot for cancerous cells. Since the malignant parts of the margin are invisible to the naked eye, surgeons have to use their judgment to determine how much of it to remove. If they abscind too much, the patient loses healthy tissue, too little and the cancer cells that remain could quietly form a new tumor.