Nanotech medical imaging – the future of disease detection?

Medical imaging
© iStock/K_E_N

A team of Australian researchers has pioneered an innovative medical imaging device with nanotechnology that can fit into the lens of a smartphone camera, an advancement that may provide low-cost disease diagnostics to parts of the world that need them most.

Developed by a team at the University of Melbourne and the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Transformative Meta-Optical Systems (TMOS), the groundbreaking nanotech medical imaging device condenses once expensive, complex and bulky equipment into a smartphone camera.

The breakthrough will enhance disease diagnostics in rural and remote areas that lack access to advanced medical diagnostics and has demonstrated excellent performance in diagnosing a range of diseases. The World Health Organization (WHO) implored countries to increase investments in disease diagnostics in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which they explained will optimise disease control, treatment, and prevention.

Streamlining medical imaging technology

The traditional methods for identifying diseases primarily involve employing optical microscopes the monitor changes in biological cells.

Lukas Wesemann, the study’s lead author and research fellow at the University of Melbourne and TMOS, explained: “It usually involves staining the cells with chemicals in a laboratory environment and utilising high-end microscopes, which are bulky and expensive.”

The Australian researchers have miniaturised phase-imaging technology by utilising metasurfaces that manipulate the light passing through them, enabling them to make invisible aspects of objects, such as live biological cells, observable. Phase-imaging requires contrasting transparency levels in tissues or cells.

Wesemann said: “Our flat optical device that is only a few hundred nanometres thick can perform the same kind of microscopy technique used a lot in the investigation of biological cells. It can be integrated on top of a camera lens to help detect changes in biological cells indicative of diseases.”

The researchers explained that their nanotech medical imaging device could be used to detect devastating diseases like malaria, leishmaniasis, trypanosomiasis, and babesiosis in the future, as these can be identified with optical microscopy.

Ann Roberts, the co-author of the study and TMOS chief investigator and professor at the University of Melbourne, said: “The benefit of being able to visualise cells with this kind of device is the fact that they can be alive and they don’t need to be processed in any way before they can be visualised. It’s real time and requires no computational processing. The device does all the work.”

Benefits of nanotech disease diagnostics

The nanotech medical imaging will not only be beneficial for remote diagnostic but will also make detecting disease at home a reality. This would allow patients to send specimens of their blood or saliva to any laboratory globally for assessment and rapid diagnosis.

Roberts added: “Early diagnosis could make timely treatment possible and can lead to better health outcomes. Making medical diagnostic devices smaller, cheaper and more portable will help disadvantaged regions gain access to healthcare that is currently only available to first world countries.”

The nanotech medical imaging device prototype is just $7000, which is possible due to it being assembled with the tools used to develop electronic computer chips. The team is now searching for industrial collaboration to commercialise the device.

Wesemann said: “We’re confident that in the near future, we can produce fabrication methods that are more suitable for mass fabrication and bring the device cost down to potentially a few cents. It is a very fundamental technique that any engineer could pick up and integrate into any mobile medical imaging device; it doesn’t even have to be a smartphone.”

Michael Abramoff, ophthalmologist, computer engineer and founder and executive chairman of US-based Digital Diagnostics company, concluded: “This is a new imaging modality, and the feasibility of such optical phase imaging using incident light is promising, as there are many almost transparent tissues that are hard to image without contrast or radiation. We look forward to the application of this modality to biological tissue, and especially the retina, as it is there where neural and vascular tissue can be imaged simultaneously.”

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