It can be a traumatic experience for patients to wait for cancer diagnostic test results, although it only takes one week for the results to come out.

In April 2017, Dr Kevin Tsia, Associate Professor in Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) and his research team invented an innovative laser imaging technology, producing promising results to reduce cancer diagnosis duration from approximately one week to only two minutes.

Free-space angular-chirp-enhanced delay (FACED) imaging achieves 100 times faster in scan speed

One major advantage of FACED over conventional imaging techniques is its speed. Unlike existing technologies limited by mechanical components, FACED is only governed by the flashing rate of a laser. While the existing microscopy can scan 10 cells per second, FACED is able to scan up to 10,000 to 100,000 cells within the same amount of time.

“Notably, being 100 times faster in imaging speed than state-of-the-art imaging flow cytometers without losing the image information content, this technology could be an effective and efficient tool to analyse individual cells—say, cancer cells—in great details within an enormous population of cells,” said Dr Tsia, who was also one of the two Hong Kong recipients of the 14th Chinese Science and Technology Award for Young Scientists in 2016.

The HKU FACED team led by Dr Kevin Tsia (centre) and the laser-scanning device with an infinity mirror. (Source: HKU)
The HKU FACED team led by Dr Kevin Tsia (centre) and the laser-scanning device with an infinity mirror. (Source: HKU)

FACED imaging adopted the concept of ‘infinity mirrors’– a pair of parallel mirrors–combined with an ultrafast pulsed laser. The result is an ultrafast sweeping laser beam that breaks all limitations of existing technology.

One potential application of FACED imaging is to detect the rare cancerous cells in blood samples that contain billions of cells. “I believe it could provide a more accurate diagnosis with a technique widely used in tumour screenings, such as breast cancer,” Dr Tsia commented.

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This cutting-edge technology may resolve challenges in other fields and industries. Making use of its advantage, it may explore the high-speed neuronal activities in complex neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease. Marine biology studies and the manufacturing industry may also benefit from this imaging technique in the future.

Laser technology has only been around for 50 years, but already has solid niches in the realm of medicine

‘Laser’ stands for light amplification by the stimulated emission of radiation. Originally, it only existed in Albert Einstein’s theoretical concepts. It was not until 1954 that this technology was brought into reality at Bell Laboratories.

Dermatology and ophthalmology were amongst the very first medical fields to adopt lasers technology in their practice. In the early days, dermatologists used laser to remove port wine stains and melanomas from the skin.

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Currently, the team is awaiting US patent approval for the FACED imaging technology. The team is also facing a challenge to develop a software that is capable of analysing the sheer amount of image data.

The team will be working at Queen Mary Hospital for the clinical trials, but it will be at least three to five years before this technology can be introduced for patients use. MIMS

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