Scientists Develop Mantis Shrimp-Inspired Sensors That Can Detect Cancer

Klaus Stiefel, 'Mantis Shrimp,' via Flickr. CC BY-NC 2.0

Mantis shrimp, or stomatopods, are remarkable marine crustaceans. They’re feisty little creatures that aren’t afraid to whip out their record-breaking punch that can strike at a similar acceleration to a bullet exiting the muzzle of a gun. They’re also endowed with an incredibly complex visual system that allows them to see visible, UV and polarized light. And it’s these superb eyes that are now serving as inspiration for the design of a new wave of medical imagers that University of Queensland (UQ) researchers hope can one day be used to visualize brain activity and detect tumors.

As mentioned, mantis shrimp are able to detect polarized light with their compound eyes. Polarized light waves are light waves in which vibrations occur in the same plane. It’s known that cancerous tissue reflects polarized light differently to healthy tissue, so various current imaging systems use this to detect tumors. However, UQ researchers hope to improve the existing technology by mimicking aspects of the mantis shrimp’s eyes.

“The camera that we’ve developed in close collaboration with US and UK scientists shoots video and could provide immediate feedback on detecting cancer and monitoring the activity of exposed nerve cells,” study author Justin Marshall said in a news release. “It converts the invisible messages into colors that our visual system is comfortable with.”

Accurate sensors are useful in oncology because they reduce the need for more invasive procedures such as biopsies and can also be used to guide surgery. Furthermore, some widely used imaging techniques, such as color endoscopy, can only detect certain types of cancer, meaning there is much room for improvement. In the latest study, UQ researchers put a fluorescence/polarization endoscope to the test in mice with colorectal cancer and found that the device could successfully detect tumors.

According to Marshall, this research could even serve as a basis for the redesign of smartphone cameras that could turn, say, an iPhone into a personal health monitoring device. Some cancer patients could then use their phone to monitor their tumors, reducing the burden on healthcare systems.

Polarization sensors also have the potential to advance the field of neuroscience as they allow researchers to record neuronal activity without the need for fluorescent dyes that are often toxic and also bleach over time, limiting their usefulness. In the current study, the researchers tested out their new class of polarization imaging sensors on populations of neurons and found that they were able to simultaneously capture neuronal activity in vivo.

This research and descriptions of the most recent developments in the field can be found in the open access journal Proceedings of the IEEE.

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