This week is National Cervical Cancer Awareness week and two of our TMOS members, Shaban Sulejman and Lukas Wesemann, are conducting research that can be applied to the detection of cervical cancer. There are around 900 new cases of cervical cancer reported every year, cervical cancer screening saves lives. Screening is one of the most effective ways to prevent cervical cancer or detect it earlier. But with COVID-19 to worry about, cervical screening has fallen off many of our to-do-lists. With the research conducted by Sulejman and Wesemann detection might be accessible on your phone.
To observe cervical cancer awareness week this week we discussed how this new technology could change how cancer is detected.
How would you describe your research and what are its possible applications?
Our research is in meta-optics and nanophotonics to investigate and develop new cutting-edge and state-of-the-art light-based nanotechnology on the scale of one billionth of a metre. These futuristic devices are designed to possess functionalities beyond what is conceivable today. In our case, the technology is designed to convert hidden information contained in light into information that we can readily see with cameras. More specifically, we perform what is known as phase imaging.
The phase of light relates to the point in its cycle at which a light wave is at, but is undetectable by cameras. When light passes through invisible things, such as live biological cells, structural information is imparted into the phase. Our technology can covert this phase information into different brightness levels to reveal contrast in an image. Therefore, the imaging and detection of ordinarily invisible objects are enabled by this technology.
We have special interests in applying our technology to biomedical imaging to image invisible cells, such as blood cells and human cervical cancer. Such samples are typically invisible under conventional microscopes and require complex methods, such as chemical staining, for their detection. On the other hand, our technology requires no such staining or post-processing to produce images instantaneously. Light is shone through the sample and then subsequently through our ultra-thin devices to make it visible on the other side.
We are currently extending the performance to extract numerical information directly related to the phase of light, known as quantitative phase imaging. This can allow determination of the thicknesses and chemical composition of cells using only light. Further applications include hazardous gas sensing, non-invasive disease and cancer diagnostics, dynamical biological growth monitoring and object recognition. Moreover, the technology can be directly integrated into existing cameras, such as in smart phones, given its miniaturisation.
Why did you decide to study this field? Do you have a personal connection or saw a hole in current research?
I decided to pursue my studies in meta-optics and nanophotonics as I am passionate in using the power of optical physics to produce technology that is useful for society. I personally have a strong connection with cancer as my father battled prostate cancer. I therefore feel honoured to play a small part in developing technology that can assist with cancer detection, with hopes of possibly saving lives in the future. Developing the next-generation of miniaturised cameras capable of imaging invisible things can provide important applications in biomedical imaging and diagnostics. Being able to conduct my PhD within TMOS and the nanophotonics group at The University of Melbourne is an invaluable opportunity to conduct this important research.
This week is National Cervical Cancer Awareness month, with early detection being so important how would your research change the diagnosis pathway from where it is currently?
There exist current methods that are capable of detecting cancerous cells but they can require bulky and complicated equipment. Such biological cells are commonly investigated through microscopes, which can significantly magnify small samples. However, some biological cells, such as some cervical cancer cells, possess virtually invisible features that go undetected.
Methods have been developed to overcome this, such as chemical staining where visible structures are attached to the cells of interest to expose them. On the other hand, there exist phase imaging techniques utilising bulky and expensive equipment, such as prisms in microscopes or computational post-processing, which restricts their availability and real-time imaging required for early stage detection. As a result, the duration between tests and diagnosis, and also the costs of cancer tests, can significantly increase. Moreover, ultra-compact integration into miniaturised devices is not possible.
Our technology harnesses the power of meta-optics to offer instantaneous phase imaging that can fit within any miniaturised device, such as a smartphone lens. Nanotechnology is replacing traditional large optical components to ultimately miniaturise systems. It has the potential for low-cost mass production for ultra-fast detection schemes and potentially provide access to low socio-economic communities across the world.
What is the time frame for your research to be available to the public?
We have recently demonstrated our technology in a laboratory setting and published in journal articles (https://doi.org/10.1038/s41377-021-00540-7 and https://doi.org/10.1021/acsphotonics.2c00346). Currently it still utilises microscopes to magnify small samples that adds to the bulkiness, and requires costly nanofabrication techniques.
However, we envisage that this nanotechnology can be integrated into a medical setting in the future. Advances in nanotechnology can produce ultra-thin and miniaturised lenses required for magnification. Moreover, advances in engineering and nano-chip production can reduce the costs associated with mass production. Together with our technology, they possess the strong potential for integration into portable devices in the next decade and hence real-time disease detection to help save peoples’ lives.
What role do you see meta-optics having in the detection for cervical cancer?
Meta-optics and nanophotonics possess significant potential for cervical cancer and other disease detection. They harness the power of strong light-matter interactions on the scale of one billionth of a metre to manipulate, generate and detect light in unseen ways. These therefore open a hidden world previously unreachable to us. Consequently, functionalities beyond what are currently conceivable today become possible through meta-optics. Invisible or hidden objects go undetected in current technologies. This specifically is a significant issue in medical diagnostics as dangerous cells and diseases can go undetected. However, the power of meta-optics enables access to this hidden information to open this unseen world. As a result, early-stage detection can be significantly enhanced to enable useful treatment before it is too late. Finally, this new hidden world revealed through meta-optics has the potential to produce new methods and technologies that further transcend the capabilities of today.
The research conducted by members within TMOS have numerous applications, it is truly amazing to see the scope of this research. The work conducted by Sulejman and Wesemann has the possibility to change how we view early detection of cancer and other diseases. The ability for this work to change the world we live in is truly outstanding.
Thank you Sulejman and Wesemann for taking the time to talk to me and for sharing your research and stories.
Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access Officer