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Medical camera makes ‘light work’ of seeing through the body

September 2017: A camera is being developed that will be able to locate medical tools, such as endoscopes, inside the body without the need to resort to inconvenient X-rays.

Image showing the light emitted from the tip of the endoscope, compared with a conventional camera
Image on left shows light emitted from the tip of the endoscope, revealing its precise location in the lungs. Right image shows the picture that would be obtained using a conventional camera, with light scattered through the structures of the lung.

Professor Robert R. Thomson and Dr Mike Tanner, both members of the Proteus team based in the MRC Centre for Inflammation Research at the University of Edinburgh and Heriot Watt University,  have completed the first steps in developing a camera that can ‘see’ through the human body. The camera is designed to help doctors track medical tools that are inserted into a patient in order to investigate a range of internal conditions. The new device is able to detect sources of light from inside, such as the illuminated tip of the endoscope’s long flexible tube. Until now, it has not been possible to track where an endoscope is located in the body in order to guide it to the right place without using X-rays or other expensive methods

Usually, light scatters or bounces off body tissue rather than travelling straight through. While this can reveal a wealth of information about internal structure it makes conventional through-tissue imaging practically impossible, as the scattering results in a blurred image and loss of information.

Taking advantage of single photon detection solves this problem. Not only does it give the camera a high sensitivity towards observing the small number of photons passing through tissue, but it also records the time they take to arrive onto the sensor. Light which is highly scattered travels a longer distance and therefore takes more time to reach the camera. Conversely, a small fraction of the light scatters relatively little and travels in a nearly direct (or ballistic) path to the camera, arriving much sooner. Operating the camera in a mode similar to a video camera, the early arrival of this so-called ‘ballistic light’ can be separated from the later, scattered light – a concept known as ‘ballistic imaging’. By detecting the first photons, it is possible to determine where the light source is located inside the body.

The prototype demonstrations have already shown that a point light source can be located through tissue approximately 20 cm thick under normal lighting conditions using the ballistic imaging technique. The camera will be further developed to enable clinicians to locate inserted medical devices at the bedside, visualising both the tip and length of the device.

Funded by Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council

Proteus website

Biomedical Optics Express article (OSA Publishing website)  

BBC World Service News Hour – Radio Interview at 19mins (BBC website)