A new wave of imaging technologies, driven by the falling cost of computing, is transforming the way doctors can examine patients.
In a bioengineering laboratory at Stanford University, Christopher Contag, a microbiologist, is designing new approaches to “virtual” pathology. He has created a variety of instruments that can travel the esophagus, stomach and intestine, allowing pathologists to probe for cancers by peering in three dimensions below the surface of the skin.
Frustrated by the time between when a tissue sample is taken and when a pathology laboratory can examine it, Dr. Contag, who oversees a molecular imaging laboratory at Stanford, is experimenting with a variety of next-generation endoscopes. The new devices not only portray the surface of the skin, but also use a variety of optical and acoustical techniques to virtually “punch holes” in hundreds of cells deep within the human body, while using contrast agents to identify abnormalities.
He describes the approach as “point-of-care pathology,” part of a convergence of medical technologies that make it increasingly possible for surgeons and medical technicians to make informed, on-the-spot decisions about patient care.
“We want to give the pathologist what he already looks at, so it’s pretty easy,” he said.
In the half-century since the movie “Fantastic Voyage” portrayed a miniaturized submarine navigating the human body to find and destroy a blood clot, researchers have relied on optical, magnetic and X-ray imaging techniques to peer into bodies with ever-greater precision.
Today a new wave of imaging technologies is again transforming the practice of medicine. They include new pathology tools — like the ones Dr. Contag’s team is developing — to give doctors an instantaneous diagnosis, as well as inexpensive systems, often based on smartphones, that can extend advanced imaging technologies to the entire world.