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Northeastern University Researcher Develops Groundbreaking Methodology to Identify Cancerous Cells

Recognizing the distinction between healthy and cancerous cells has traditionally been up to the eye of highly-trained cytologists and pathologists. While the majority of the resulting diagnoses are accurate, new technology can enhance the accuracy and alleviate the physical strain on the human observer. Northeastern University professor Max Diem and his team have developed an automatic method based on vibrational microspectroscopy that identifies the presence of metastatic cancer cells without the need for staining, and without human input.

The innovative method aids classical cytology (where visually inspection is used to detect changes in the morphology of cells obtained from bodily fluids, exfoliation or thin needle biopsy) and classical pathology (where stained tissue sections are examined visually).

“The idea behind the methodology is to examine the chemical composition of cells, as opposed to relying solely on the morphology,” said Diem, Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Northeastern University. “Abnormalities in exfoliated cells, for instance in Pap smears, can be difficult to discern visually, however, by looking at the biochemical composition of the cell with the help of vibrational spectroscopy, we can detect specific cellular changes indicating cancer.”

Funded by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the novel method developed by Diem and his team uses a quantifiable and quantitative approach to measure cervical, urothelial or buccal exfoliated cells. As disease changes the chemical composition of the cell, the instrument is able to detect variations in cellular properties without the need to stain the slides and inspect them visually.

“The method is entirely machine-based and computer-interpreted, and thus, reduces the workload in diagnostic laboratories,” added Diem. “It allows us to increase the overall accuracy and decrease the time required to render medical diagnoses.”

Under another grant from NCI, the researchers are working on developing an operating room-based instrument that will produce a diagnosis of breast cancer cells in the axillary lymph nodes within 15 minutes after excision. The goal is to produce instrumentation and software that can analyze lymph node sections in the operating room, and provide the surgeon with an objective diagnosis of the spread of disease.

“We have identified three major milestones for this particular research,” said Diem. “We want to develop a rapid sample preparation methodology, refine the imaging instrumentation, and construct reliable databases and algorithms for the detection.”

Underscoring the university’s emphasis on interdisciplinary research, Diem’s laboratory also collaborates with the Center for Subsurface Sensing and Imaging Systems (CenSSIS) at Northeastern University, making the professor one of the non-engineer members of the CenSSIS group.

For more information, please contact Renata Nyul at 617-373-7424 or at

About Northeastern

Founded in 1898, Northeastern University is a private research university located in the heart of Boston.  Northeastern is a leader in interdisciplinary research, urban engagement, and the integration of classroom learning with real-world experience. The university’s distinctive cooperative education program, where students alternate semesters of full-time study with semesters of paid work in fields relevant to their professional interests and major, is one of the largest and most innovative in the world.  The University offers a comprehensive range of undergraduate and graduate programs leading to degrees through the doctorate in six undergraduate colleges, eight graduate schools, and two part-time divisions.  For more information, please visit


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