Renato Turchetta’s new sensor represents a double threat to cancer.
In the hospital, the sensor will allow doctors to see smaller tumours than possible with today’s technology, allowing them to intervene at an early stage to treat life-threatening cancers. In the lab, it will allow cancer researchers to perform experiments on smaller biological samples than ever could before, showing for the first time how the individual molecules that make up cancer cells interact with chemotherapy drugs. It will hopefully lead to groundbreaking, life-saving research.
Surprisingly, this revolutionary sensor is based on the “same sort of sensor used in cameras.” From this basic building block, Turchetta and his team at Rutherford add technology that accelerates picture-taking.
“When we take an x-ray,” Turchetta explains, “we take many pictures and combine them to generate one. But we only have a limited time to do this: about two seconds. After this amount of time, people move and the image becomes blurry. If we can take more pictures in this limited amount of time, it means our image will be clearer.” Researchers already are using his prototypes to understand the microscopic machinations of cancer cells on a level of detail they could not before.
Another variant leverages transmission electron microscopy, TEM for short. This technique transmits a beam of electrons through an ultra-thin specimen, interacting with the specimen as it passes through it. This allows researchers to image microscopic molecules, and to “be more precise—there will be more pixels in the x-ray image taken,” meaning that x-ray images will be clearer and easier for doctors to interpret.
Collaboration with industry is key to realising this super sensor vision. Turchetta developed the TEM variant of his sensor with the help of a leading multinational sensor company, US-based FEI. Today, his team is working on bringing the x-ray variant of his sensor into the real world with the help of the Oxfordshire-based sensor company, VivaMOS.
“Ten years from now,” he hopes that “fewer people will die of cancer.” If he can work with companies to transform his sensor research into real world technology, as he has already proven he can do, doubtless, lives will be saved.