More than Skin Deep: Screening Cancer with Optical Biopsy


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Despite advances in microsurgery, it can still be difficult to tell if a skin cancer has been entirely removed without a follow up biopsy, which could require a patient to come back for a second operation.

But what if the biopsy could be performed noninvasively as part of the initial procedure, so the surgeon would know immediately whether additional cancerous tissue needed to be removed?

A novel optical device to do that moved a step closer to commercialization last week. LighTopTech, a University of Rochester spinoff, was one of 10 startups to advance to the next phase of a competition sponsored by Luminate Accelerator.

The company received an investment of $100,000 from the accelerator. It will now compete with the nine other finalists for the top prize: A $1 million additional investment, to be announced in June. The accelerator, based in Rochester and funded by New York State, is focused on advancing next generation optics, photonics, and imaging companies.

“This is our first outside investment,” said company president Cristina Canavesi. She co-founded LighTopTech in 2013 with her PhD advisor, Jannick Rolland, the Brian J. Thompson Professor of Optical Engineering at the University. Rolland is the company’s chief technology officer.

“During the past four years we’ve completely re-engineered the prototype, and we recently completed all of the hardware development of our product, so we are now ready to launch the commercialization effort, especially targeting medical applications,” Canavesi says.

Rolland first conceived of the idea 11 years ago after experiencing a biopsy, and learning about the risks involved. About the same time, a technique called optical coherence tomography was becoming widely used to obtain images inside tissues.

“For me, it really connected the dots,” Rolland says. “If we could do an optical biopsy noninvasively it would eliminate the risks. The (OCT) images were kind of noisy, so my first goal was to produce images at a higher resolution.”

The portable device she and Canavesi have developed can render high-resolution images of cells just below the surface of living tissues such as skin or the cornea.

“We can provide the same kind of images at the cellular level as histology (biopsied cells stained and viewed through a microscope). But there’s no cutting and it’s done right at the time of the surgery,” Canavesi said.

At the heart of the technology is a biomimetic (bioinspired) microscope with a liquid lens. It can refocus at different depths inside a sample to obtain high-resolution three-dimensional images of materials.

The technology has proven itself in two clinical trials at the University’s Medical Center. For example, the device was used by Sherrif Ibrahim, an assistant professor of dermatology, to determine the margins of skin cancer prior to surgical removal.

“We were impressed with its ability to differentiate between skin cancer and normal skin,” said Ibrahim. “This may aid us in more accurate and efficient surgical treatment of skin cancer, particularly those in cosmetically sensitive areas such as the face.”
The device could be used for several other medical applications – for example, imaging the cornea of the eye to detect and monitor nerve loss that results from diabetes, Rolland noted.
It could also be used to obtain images beneath the surface of fabricated materials, to monitor the quality of the manufacturing process, thus improving quality and yield.

“Everything has been a huge learning experience.”

Canavesi and Rolland also have benefited from the close proximity of the University’s Medical Center to the Institute of Optics, just a five-minute walk away on the River Campus. Being able to collaborate on clinical trials, for example, “has been tremendously helpful for accelerating the application of our product,” Canavesi says.

But above all, Canavesi and Rolland have benefited from each other’s strengths.

Canavesi praises Rolland’s energy and cutting edge vision as a researcher.

“I was very fortunate in joining Prof. Rolland’s group. Through this journey I’ve been constantly inspired by her as a scientist and also as woman in science promoting women engineers,” Canavesi said.

Rolland praises Canavesi as “extremely smart,” a quick learner who is adept with both hardware and software, and “extremely rigorous.”

“She can think of a process and really manage that process very well to ensure we have very high quality.”

“We are very different, but we have a deep respect for each other.”
At the LighTopTech website, they proudly identify their company as “woman-owned.” That in itself is noteworthy given the continuing underrepresentation of women in engineering and technical fields.

“To have two women scientists as cofounders of a company is unusual,” Rolland says. “It’s a fantastic example for other women to realize their potential as well.”

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