Researchers at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity have devel­oped an early-​​stage, highly accu­rate cancer screening tech­nology that deter­mines— in seconds—whether a cell is can­cerous, pre­can­cerous or normal.

The break­through tech­nology, for which there is a patent pending, auto­mat­i­cally cap­tures a “fin­ger­print” of the cell’s bio­chem­ical com­po­si­tion, which is sub­se­quently ana­lyzed by a com­puter for abnormalities.

The new method, which cur­rently can screen for oral, cer­vical and head-​​and-​​neck can­cers, is faster, more accu­rate, and enables ear­lier detec­tion than cur­rent screening methods. Those methods rely on the visual detec­tion, under a micro­scope, of a few abnor­mally shaped cells among thousands.

Referred to as Spec­tral Cytopathology (SCP), the tech­nology was pio­neered by pro­fessor of chem­istry and chem­ical biology Max Diem, head of Northeastern’s Lab­o­ra­tory for Spec­tral Diag­nosis; chem­istry and chem­ical biology research sci­en­tists Melissa Romeo, Ben Bird and Miloš Miljkovic; and sev­eral North­eastern grad­uate and under­grad­uate students.

We are looking beyond tra­di­tional methods by focusing on detecting cel­lular changes that happen in the ear­lier stages of cancer, which will have a tremen­dous impact on patients,” said Diem.

Cytol­o­gists [sci­en­tists who study the struc­ture and func­tion of cells] have the most dif­fi­culty iden­ti­fying pre-​​cancers in the ear­liest stages,” said Romeo. “Our tech­nology offers the ability to detect abnormal changes in cells even before (struc­tural) changes become apparent.”

Ear­lier detec­tion com­bined with greater accuracy—SCP has a greater-​​than 95 per­cent accu­racy rate com­pared to 65 to 70 per­cent for cur­rent screening methods—would make a sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence in patient sur­vival rates.

The high death rate asso­ci­ated with oral cancer, for example, results from late– stage diag­noses, often after the cancer has metas­ta­sized. When dis­cov­ered early, how­ever, oral can­cers have an 80 to 90 per­cent sur­vival rate.

The tech­nology behind SCP works by cap­turing a cell’s bio­chem­ical com­po­si­tion. After a cell sample is obtained through a min­i­mally inva­sive exfo­li­a­tion pro­ce­dure, the cells are probed with infrared light, which inter­acts with the cell’s mol­e­c­ular com­po­nents and pro­duces a “fin­ger­print” of each cell’s bio­chem­ical com­po­si­tion. The data is ana­lyzed by a com­puter, which reports if the cells are normal, can­cerous or pre-​​cancerous.

Tra­di­tional screening methods require cytol­o­gists to detect abnor­mal­i­ties by exam­ining cells under a micro­scope to dis­cover very subtle struc­tural changes in just a few cells among as many as 10,000.

The new tech­nology, which Diem esti­mates is no more than five years away from bringing into appli­ca­tion, would relieve a testing logjam at existing cytology lab­o­ra­to­ries. There is a shortage of cytol­o­gists able to con­duct the tests, he said, lim­iting the number of screen­ings that can be performed.

SCP “could be applied to sev­eral other forms of cancer and result in more early diag­noses, poten­tially improving the sur­vival rate of patients with cancer,” added Diem. “Our ulti­mate goal is to have this appli­ca­tion in doc­tors’ and den­tists’ offices so that patients can be rou­tinely screened.”