Optical Society of America is reporting about a highly sensitive method that researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbia are using to make melanoma cells emit noise, thus allowing oncologists to actually hear early signs of metastases. This novel optical technique has great sensitivity.
From the announcement:
The team’s method, called photoacoustic detection, combines laser techniques from optics and ultrasound techniques from acoustics, using a laser to make cells vibrate and then picking up the characteristic sound of melanoma cells. In a clinical test, doctors would take a patient’s blood sample and separate the red blood cells and the plasma. In a healthy person, the remaining cells would be white blood cells, but in a melanoma patient the sample may contain cancer cells. To find out, doctors would put the sample in saline solution and expose it to rapid-fire sequences of brief but intense blue-laser pulses, each lasting just five billionths of a second.
In lab tests, the Missouri-Columbia team was able to detect melanoma cells obtained from actual patients, showing that the method can spot as few as 10 cells in saline solution. The dark, microscopic granules of melanin contained in the cancer cells absorb the energy bursts from the blue-laser light, going through rapid cycles of expanding as they heat up and shrinking as they cool down. These sudden changes generate loud cracks — relative to the granules’ size — which propagate in the solution like tiny tsunamis.
The sound waves produced by melanin are high-frequency ultrasounds, meaning that they cannot be heard by the human ear, even if amplified. However, researchers can pick them up with special microphones and analyze them with a computer. Other human cells do not contain pigments with the same color as melanin, so the melanin signature is easy to tell apart from other noises, said John Viator, a biomedical engineer at Missouri-Columbia and a coauthor of the Optics Letters paper. And the presence of melanin granules in the blood is an unmistakable sign. “The only reason there could be melanin in the human blood is that there would be melanoma cells,” he said.