5 ways nanoscale biophotonics could help your family

30 July 2019:

Biophotonics is a technique with so many applications it’s hard to know where to start.

While you probably have never heard of most of them, the technology is transforming the way we study human health.

Improving pregnancy success rates

A lot of what we know about fertilisation and embryo development has come from in vitro experiments – those carried out in a test tube. How much better if we could observe these processes inside real, live female bodies.

Well new technologies, using nanoscale biophotonics, let us do precisely that.

High powered sensors, harnessing the power of light, can zoom in on the chemistry of pregnancy to deepen our understanding of all the ingredients needed to grow a healthy baby for nine months.

Safer brain surgery

The tiny imaging probe, encased within a brain biopsy needle, lets surgeons “see” at-risk blood vessels as they insert the needle. That helps stop potentially fatal bleeds.

The smart needle, being developed by CNBP researchers at the University of Adelaide, contains a tiny fibre-optic camera, the size of a human hair, shining infrared light to see the vessels before the needle can damage them.

The needle is connected to computer software that can alert the surgeon in real-time.
It has already gone through a pilot trial with 12 patients at Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital in Western Australia and will soon be ready for formal clinical trials.

Early diagnosis of common health problems

Our cells often signal ill health long before symptoms appear. And as we all know, early diagnosis can often mean the difference between life and death.

That inspired CNBP researchers to look for a general marker for ill health and then to work on a means of detecting it.

They settled on the cytokines, a type of protein secreted by cells in the immune system that can signal a whole range of conditions including arthritis, tissue trauma, depression or even cancer.

The problem up to now has been that cytokines are extremely hard to measure and quantify – there is not many of them at any time, they are extremely small and exist in an environment of much background noise and interference.

So CNBP researchers developed nanotools to monitor cytokines in living humans. They engineered the surfaces of nanomaterials such as gold nanoparticles, graphene oxides and magnetic nanoparticles to sense the presence of cytokines, providing an ultra-powerful tool for early detection.

Removing more cancer cells the first time

One of the biggest problems for cancer surgeons is making sure they remove all the cancer cells while leaving as much healthy tissue intact as possible. But it can be hard to tell the two apart – in 15-20% of cases the patient requires follow-up surgery to remove tumour tissue that was missed the first time. It is particularly difficult to differentiate with breast cancer.

Now CNBP researchers, in collaboration with clinicians at the Royal Adelaide Hospital, have developed a sensor which can potentially help surgeons to tell the difference between healthy and cancerous tissue in real time, which could significantly increase the surgery success rate for many cancers.

The probe works by measuring the pH of the surface of the tissue, an indicator of whether the tissue is healthy or tumorous. The tip of an optical fibre is coated with a pH sensitive indicator, and the signal read out uses a low-cost light emitting diode and portable spectrometer.

Less painful, more accurate testing for prostate cancer

It has long been a goal to replace invasive needle biopsies to test for prostate cancer with a simple urine test. Not only would that be great for the patients, it would also be cheaper and faster. But current urine diagnostic tools are just not sensitive enough.

For a test to be useful for early diagnosis and treatment, it would need to detect just 10 cancer cells in a large volume of urine. Biophotonics could solve this problem.

CNBP is working with Minomic International and Macquarie University to develop a new method of fluorescent staining and imaging prostate cancer cells so they become highly visible, glowing when viewed under a special microscope.

The capacity to quantify single prostate cancer cells has the potential to revolutionise the diagnostics industry.