© Jeff Keyzer
© Jeff Keyzer

Light-listening photonics could detect disease

A new skin disease detection technique, termed ‘optoacoustic mesoscopy’, could help overcome obstacles that have limited microscopy and visual inspection for centuries.

The detection of malignant skin alterations is currently aided by optical microscopes such as dermoscopes, for example. While these offer high resolution, they only provide a partial view of the skin due to the low penetration depth.

This makes the non-invasive inspections of deeper skin layers and structures impossible as the images become increasingly blurred with depth.

Optoacoustic mesoscopy operates non-invasively without the administration of exogenous agents and, as such, is considered safe for human use.

Ultrasound signals are generated inside tissue following skin illumination by safe light pulses in the visible or the near-infrared spectrum.

Professor Dr Vasilis Ntziachristos, director of the Institute for Biological and Medical Imaging (IBMI) and European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Grant recipient, said: “As a result, we are able to obtain detailed information about the skin morphology, skin microvasculature, inflammatory changes, melanin distribution, blood oxygenation or the metabolic state of tissue. No other imaging method currently offers such a rich information profile without using contrast agents.”

The device could also offer measurements of inflammatory, allergy, neoplastic and other pathophysiological biomarkers with a simple and fast skin inspection, potentially providing new insights into complex diseases spanning from cancer detection to the assessment of psoriasis or eczema therapy.

Ntziachristos added: “We have completed a first prototype of the device and have performed pilot studies in humans together with our clinical partners at the Dermatology Clinic of the University hospital Klinikum rechts der Isar (Munich, Germany).”

With the ERC and the EU’s Horizon 2020 framework programme investing in this technology, the researchers hope to develop a superior imaging device that implements spectral illumination, improves resolution and penetration depth, and performs a larger number of measurements to better investigate the diagnostic and theranostic potential of the method.