Building better cancer detection

Photo by Mary Knox Merrill.

Skin cancer is the most prevalent form of cancer in the United States, and its diagnosis can be a long, tedious and expensive process. With this problem in mind, Northeastern University students have developed a compact microscope they say can one day help improve detection.

The senior capstone team — electrical and computer engineering majors Daniel Boyd, Sarah Brown, Brian Dorfman, Ryan Fox, Mike Levesque and Tim Sutton — built a Structured Illumination Microscope they say would offer an alternative to the current method of diagnosis that involves taking a skin biopsy, freezing it, slicing the individual layers of skin and examining them one by one.

Instead, their microscope takes an image of the entire biopsy, which is fed into a filtering software program. That program creates a 3D model that separates out each layer of the skin — making skin cancer detection much simpler and quicker.

“This type of microscope could be used in the evaluation of a skin sample to determine whether cancerous cells are present, and a compact form could be used on-site in dermatologists’ offices, rather than sending the skin biopsy to an external lab,” Fox said.

The students’ capstone is a continuation of a project started by seniors the previous year. This year’s senior team focused on improving the processing speed and decreasing the microscope’s size to make the device more clinically feasible. In particular, students said their decision to switch from using high-powered lasers to LED cut the size of microscope roughly in half, and reduced not only costs but also the power needed to operate the device.

Members of the electrical and computer science faculty mentored the students. Associate professor Masoud Salehi served as the students’ advisor. The seniors also did much of their work in the Optical Science Laboratory, directed by associate professor Charles DiMarzio.

Brown and Sutton were pursuing biomedical engineering minors as they worked on their capstone, Salehi said, which gave the group another level of expertise that benefitted their research.

“This particular project puts together the design and engineering aspects, physics, computation and biology all under same umbrella,” Salehi said. “The students did a really good job, and were very satisfied with the results. They were very dedicated.”

“This capstone was a good fit for us because it had a strong balance of software work, optics, hardware and signal processing that falls under electrical engineering,” added Brown.