The mantis shrimp is a marvelous species that among other things can deliver a powerful punch at just nine days old. But another unique trait that has attracted scientists to this small sea beast is its tiny eyes, which have 12 color receptors compared to the three in humans. Inspired by their eyes, researchers have created a camera they say can help doctors during cancer surgeries.
As reported in Science Translational Medicine, the newly designed camera extends surgeons' visual ability from the colors humans can usually see into the infrared. This would allow medical professionals to remove more cancerous tissue from patients, significantly reducing the chance that the cancer will come back.
"The mantis shrimp has these incredible eyes," lead author Steven Blair from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign said in a statement. "Humans perceive three colors – red, green, and blue – because of a single layer of light-sensitive cone cells that line our retina, but the mantis shrimp perceives upward of 12 colors thanks to the stacks of light-sensitive cells at the tip of its eye. The mantis shrimp can thus see things that humans can't imagine – and it does so in a fraction of the space."
The technology combines specialized optical filters and semiconductors. The camera sees three colors of visible light and three colors in near-infrared light. However, the technology is only half of the approach when it comes to cancer surgery. Doctors would have to inject molecules that target tumors in particular and that shine in near-infrared light. This makes the cancerous cells glaringly obvious, so easier to see and remove.
In lab experiments on mice, the use of the camera allowed researchers to distinguish healthy tissues from cancerous ones in 92 percent of the cases. In the case of head and neck cancer, the difficulties in identifying cancer cells lead to 25-40 percent of patients undergoing incomplete tumor removal surgeries, which this new camera could help with. The camera was also used to visualize breast cancer in 18 patients, which allowed surgeons to map out the lymph nodes near the tumor completely.
"The combination of this bioinspired camera and emerging tumor-targeted drugs will ensure that surgeons leave no cancer cells behind in the patient's body," said Goran Kondov, a professor and chief surgeon from North Macedonia who demonstrated this technology in the operating room. "This additional set of eyes will help prevent recurrence of the disease, providing patients a quicker and easier path to recovery. And the device can potentially be manufactured at low cost since it is so simple, making it accessible to hospitals around the world."
The camera is light and compact and the team is now investigating how to best incorporate it in an endoscope for minimally invasive surgeries in resource-limited hospitals.