Issue 15, July 2008

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Research Endowment Fund Adds Momentum to Research
Potential Breakthrough in Coronary Bypass Surgery
Lighting Up Cancer Cells
Finger Joint Brings Hope for Arthritic Sufferers
Innovations Result in Industry Accolades
Clean Energy Alternatives Uncovered at HKUST
CityU Initiatives Lead to Major Energy Savings
Summary Brief for Collaborative Research Fund 2007/2008 Funded Projects

Researchers from the Department of Electronic and Computer Engineering at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology are working on developing a non-invasive method to detect early cancer. Their work which involves optical instruments designed for use in diagnoses and pre-surgical planning is laying the foundation for new and safe surgical methods.

Associate Professor Jianan Qu, who is leading this work, has combined the areas of technical and clinical research in a series of studies and developments. Working with co-investigators from the surgery departments at Chinese University of Hong Kong and the University of Hong Kong, his team have built a depth-resolved spectroscopy system that assesses the fluorescent reaction of epithelial tissue to various wavelengths of light. Epithelial tissue covers the whole surface of the body. It is made up of cells closely packed and ranged in one or more layers. This tissue is specialised to form the covering or lining of all internal and external body surfaces. Because of frequent exposure to various forms of physical and chemical damage, about 90% of human cancers arise from the epithelial tissue.

A specially built endoscope for fluorescence diagnosis.
Laser source and control electronics for the fluorescence endoscopy system.

"We have found that it is possible to resolve the fine structure of tissue using a time-resolved fluorescent measurement. This enables us to identify the chemical composition of different layers of epithelial tissue," he said.

Cancer tissue and normal tissue emit different responses. The ability to accurately interpret these responses and confirming the presence of cancer cells will bring medical benefits in terms of more accurate diagnoses and tissue pathology. It will also facilitate surgical planning.

The investigative studies are based on optical technology which, until recently, was not considered applicable to tissue diagnosis. The latest studies to emerge from HKUST have shown that the light emissions from tissue cells will vary depending on the various components of body tissue.

"With further refinement, we are confident that our system will be able to highlight components – good and bad – and identify specific cancers at very early stage," says Professor Qu.

"Already we have demonstrated our success at isolating fluorescence signals. This has enabled us to detect early cancer cells that are not visible in an MRI, CAT scan or through endoscopes."

The mapping process now underway to identify specific cancer cells and minimise the incidence of false information is the subject of further studies financed by the Research Grants Committee. Professor Qu is confident that the ability to correctly identify forms of cancer occurring in epithelial tissue using this non-invasive process is close at hand.

"By working closely with surgeons we are able to design and produce optical instrumentation that is targeted directly to their needs. Our work allows the diagnostician and surgeon to be ever more successful as they seek diagnoses and cures for patients with cancer." Professor Qu says.

Professor Jianan Qu
Department of Electronic and Computer Engineering
The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology