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New Technology May Detect Colon Cancer Earlier

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July 25, 2006 | by Megan Fellman

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Researchers from Northwestern University and Evanston Northwestern Healthcare have teamed up to develop optical technology that is expected to detect colorectal cancer in its earliest stages.

A state-of-the-art light probe, developed by Professor Vadim Backman with the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science at Northwestern, utilizes a revolutionary light-scattering technology called Four-Dimensional Elastic Light-Scattering Fingerprinting (4D-ELF). Hemant Roy, M.D., with Evanston Northwestern Healthcare, is leading a clinical team that is testing the effectiveness of this technique for colon cancer screening. Their work is based on the principle of “field carcinogenesis” which potentially allows probing the area of the colon next to the anus to give insight into the presence of polyps in the entire colon.

“We believe that the 4D-ELF probe will be a less intrusive and highly accurate means of screening for colon cancer, the second leading cause of cancer death among Americans,” explains Roy, associate professor of medicine at Northwestern's Feinberg School of Medicine.

4D-ELF allows physicians to quantitatively analyze structures in human cells that are 10 to 20 times smaller than can be seen with microscopy. Based on the unprecedented sensitivity of this technique, researchers have the ability to detect the earliest changes in colon carcinogenesis. They have found they can determine with greater accuracy which patients will develop polyps in the colon prior to the polyp forming. In order to predict the presence of carcinogenesis anywhere in the colon the 4D-ELF measurement has to be obtained from rectal tissue only, which can be accomplished by means of a miniature fiber-optic probe without the need for colonoscopy. Sophisticated analysis of the light-scattering properties on the cells lining the colon provides this data without the need for a biopsy.

“Our hope is that similar to how the pap smear drastically reduced deaths from cervical cancer, this new technology could do the same when it comes to colon cancer,” states Backman, assistant professor of biomedical engineering.

Initial clinical studies have been conducted with support from the National Cancer Institute and the National Science Foundation. Current data collected from more than 200 patients indicates that 4D-ELF analysis has more than a 90 percent accuracy rate in identifying risk of colon polyps/cancers. Backman and Roy envision that one day this technology could be used by physicians during an annual physical exam. The probe would be inserted into the rectum in a manner similar to taking a rectal temperature.

Researchers say the technology is not meant to replace colonoscopy but is expected to better determine which patients actually need a colonoscopy. While the technology is still in the clinical trial phase, Michael Goldberg, M.D., head of gastroenterology at Evanston Northwestern Healthcare and associate professor of medicine at the Feinberg School, says it could be available to patients at ENH within five years.

This team of researchers believes that because this approach would not require the bowel preparation necessary for traditional colonoscopy and because it is much less intrusive, it may lead to more people getting screened and ultimately decrease the number of deaths from colorectal cancer each year.

Topics: Research