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I have never watched a surgery from an operating room before, so this assignment was a first for me in that regard. However, what was really thrilling was the opportunity to watch a surgery being performed by a surgeon wearing cancer-detecting goggles—an experience even most medical professionals haven’t had.
The surgery at Barnes Jewish Hospital began in the standard way. The surgery nurses were in the O.R. about 30 minutes before the patient was brought in to prep the room. The surgeon, Dr. Julie Margenthaler, scrubbed in. The patient undergoing a lumpectomy to remove cancerous tissue from her breast was prepped and opened on the table.
Then the lights went out.
Dr. Margenthaler was wearing a pair of infrared goggles designed by Dr. Sam Achilefu, the director of Washington University School of Medicine's Optical Radiology Lab.
Using a red light, the goggles are able to detect cancerous tissue after a patient is injected with a standard biomarker dye. The goggles are still in clinical trials. But so far they are accurately showing surgeons how much cancerous tissue needs to be removed so additional surgeries don’t become necessary.
To date, the goggles are being used to operate on breast and skin cancer patients. In this early clinical stage, they are simply used to confirm what MRI and other scans have already revealed. However, because they are proving so accurate, everyone is hopeful they will begin more exploratory surgeries—in other words, using the goggles to actually detect the tissue, removing the tissue and then confirming in the lab that the tissue was all malignant.
Beyond this, Dr. Achilefu is extremely excited about eventually treating other types of harder to remove cancers, such as cancer in the brain, where it’s not simply about getting the margins correct, but also about removing the least amount of tissue possible.
For the millions of people diagnosed with inoperable cancers each year, this technology could revolutionize our ability to treat them.
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