Academy Fellow Professor Eva Goldys and her research team have developed a new, non-invasive technique for diagnosing eye-surface cancer.
The innovative method uses artificial intelligence, state-of the art computing and a custom-built advanced imaging microscope.
It will make it possible to distinguish between diseased and non-diseased eye tissue, in real-time, with a simple automated process.
“We have been able to detect the presence of cancer on the surface of the eye, in addition to mapping the location of abnormal tissue margins,” Professor Goldys said.
“This is a breakthrough because the only alternative way of diagnosing ocular cancer is through a biopsy.
“We can replace this unpleasant procedure by taking a colour photograph, which is completely unique in ophthalmology at present.
“Conventional ophthalmology uses native signals from cells, and those signals carry colour information, but nobody except us is actually looking at the details of these colours. Once commercialised and transferred into the clinical setting, this method will significantly reduce the need for biopsies, prevent therapy delays and, we believe, make treatment more effective for patients.”
Seeing the light
Originally trained as a physicist, Professor Ewa Goldys had a lifelong aspiration to lead research that would improve people’s lives. What followed was an exciting interdisciplinary journey to the emerging field of biophotonics.
Today, she is the Deputy Director of the Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale BioPhotonics (CNBP) at UNSW Sydney. The CNBP was established in 2014 to develop new light-based sensing tools that can measure biochemistry in cells and tissues at a nanoscale level.
“Biophotonics is the use of light to enhance our understanding of biological processes. The tools of the trade include advanced microscopes that can image deep into biological tissue and observe molecular-scale activity. A primary goal is to create non-invasive, rapid and effective ways to diagnose and treat disease,” Professor Goldys explained.
One of her key research interests, and the focus of the past 10 years, is trying to understand how the colours and shapes of cells and tissues can be used to diagnose diseases such as cancer.
A vision of the future
According to Professor Goldys, the new technology has potential for widespread use on an outpatient basis, also in low resource settings, where there may be a shortage of pathology equipment and associated specialists.
“Now that we’ve got great results from working with patients’ samples, the next steps are to attract suitable clinical and industry partners to make the system practical and workable in a clinical setting,” she continued.
“Our aim is to be able to incorporate our design into standard ophthalmology systems – similar to that used by opticians and optometrists when undertaking regular eye examinations.”
As well eye cancer, Professor Goldy’s non-invasive light-based diagnostics can help detect a range of other medical conditions, including neuronal and kidney disease. The technologies also have potential for reproductive medicine, where they could improve the rates of IVF success.
“There is no doubt that the application of light and nanotechnology to in vivo diagnostics represents a research frontier which will have significant societal impact. We hope to see real-world translational outcomes that support clinicians in making improved diagnosis and health decisions for patients.”