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.