New nanocrystal and imaging technique opens new window to minimally invasive disease diagnosis

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1. Please give a summary of your research.

My research is driving the development of innovative sensing and imaging tools for biomedical research and practice, by unlocking the vast potential of laser crystals at the nanoscale.

Optical imaging has a special status in biomedical applications, important for image-guided surgery thanks to the high resolution that can be achieved and the simple instrumentation it utilises compared to other types of medical imaging such as CT and MRI. A major challenge, however, is the shallow penetration possible of visible light into the body that can support this type of imaging. My research is overcoming this with the development of a new generation of nanocrystal that can be excited to emit light in the short-wave infrared spectral range. This enables high-contrast optical imaging which can investigate tissue to a depth of centimetres, which is practical for diagnosis of deep-tissue diseases such as breast and bladder cancer at an early stage.

These nanocrystals have been engineered so that they can emit at the same wavelength but for differing and controlled periods of time. In this way, the nanocrystals can be used to individually probe and measure multiple disease biomarkers inside the body, all at the same time. Critically, they are able to overcome interference caused by complex light-absorbing and scattering elements such as blood, muscle and cartilage. This allows the overall biomarker signature to be profiled right inside the body, achieving accurate identification of the exact subtype of disease that is crucial for effective therapeutic decisions and prognosis.

This new optical imaging technique creates an exciting window into the body for simultaneous examination of multiple disease biomarkers. It is potentially transformational for clinical applications ranging from minimally invasive diagnosis to image-guided surgery, benefiting patients by reducing the pain, time, cost and other risks associated with current routine practice such as biopsies.

2. Please include any additional details you would like to share

Currently, for diagnosis of many diseases such as cancer which rely on medical imaging, there is still ultimately the need to take tissue from the body for testing (called biopsy). This is because of the limited spatio-temporal resolution and detection sensitivity against molecular biomarkers offered by existing medical imaging techniques. These techniques are not sufficient for definitive diagnosis at early stages and also often have substantial costs and potential radiative hazards. The subsequent biopsy, on the other hand, is an unpleasant experience for the patient, but also induces potential risks such as tumour cell reseeding that may lead to cancer relapse and even metastasis. The following confirmation tests, typically immunohistochemistry assays, also raise universal concern over reliability, with a number of reports suggesting that the outcomes are prone to sample preparation and subjective scoring, especially given that conventional immunohistochemistry assays only examine one biomarker per tissue slide.

The new nanocrystal-powered optical imaging technique I have been developing is expected to overcome these difficulties, as it is capable of quantitative assessment for a wide range of disease and cancer biomarkers all at the one time, without the need to perform biopsy. It has been demonstrated using mice models that the imaging results correlate well with those from standard immunohistochemistry assays. Being effectively real-time and minimally invasive, the new technique can significantly reduce the time, labour and cost for early-stage disease screening, offering a superior alternative to immunohistochemistry assays with improved reliability and patient experience.



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Dr Yiqing Lu received his BEng degree in Electronic Engineering from Tsinghua University in 2007 and became interested in the development of analytical methods and instrumentation for biomedical an...

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