Pen-sized microscope could make detecting cancer cells quicker and cheaper

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One problem with screening patients for cancer is turnaround time – waiting for samples to be sent to a lab, put under a larger microscope, examined, and finally, for a result to be drawn. This microscope, which is about the size of a pen, could simplify the process by allowing doctors to check for cancerous cells at a cellular level, right in an operating room or office.

The impact of this technology not only helps checking for these cells on a preliminary basis, but the creators also intend for it to be used during surgeries to remove cancer. During a surgery, identifying the cells can be a subjective process, and cutting out healthy tissue can be disastrous. This microscope could help doctors to make the right call in the heat of the moment.

The tech behind the invention is called dual-axis confocal microscopy, which trades some of the clarity of the “gold standard” diagnostic methods for speed. Below you’ll find a comparison between the two technologies, with this new microscope on the left and the older ones on the right.

Different samples of tissue from a mouse.

The important aspect to note from the above image is that the newer technology is done in real-time, while the older technique is a multi-day procedure.

As with all new medical innovations, the question on people’s mind is likely “When will it be available and how much will it cost?” The estimate here is two to four years and at a price cheaper than the larger, slower offerings. Additionally, we imagine that any applications for this in terms of first diagnostics would need to be backed up with another test using the tried-and-true methods.

If you have a head for such things, you can read the full medical journal article here that details the collaboration between the University of Washington, Stanford University, Barrow Neurological Institute, and the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

[Source –, Image – Dennis Wise, University of Washington]


Clinton Matos

Clinton Matos

Clinton has been a programmer, engineering student, project manager, asset controller and even a farrier. Now he handles the maker side of