Scientists develop ultrafast laser system to remove cancers more precisely

A new laser system that may revolutionise the treatment of cancers and help surgeons remove them without damaging healthy tissue, is being developed by scientists.

Experts at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh are working on the system based around ultrafast picosecond lasers that deliver energy in a series of pulses one trillionth of a second long.

Professor Jonathan Shephard, who is leading the project, was given £1.2 million by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) to develop the treatment.

He said the system has proven successful on colorectal cancers in the lab.

“We proved in the lab that our laser system can remove cancer cells in a way that restricts damage to the surrounding, healthy cells – within the width of a human hair,” he said.

Prof Shephard explained this happens because the laser pulses are so short and there is no time for heat to burn the surrounding tissue, which is what happens with current surgical tools.

He added: “We’re building on our understanding of lasers in colorectal cancer surgery towards clinical application, and working on adapting it for brain, head and neck cancers, where it could have huge benefits for patients.”

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“The most important principle of any cancer surgery is to ensure that all cancer cells are removed; failure to do so will result in the cancer coming back.”

He added that even microscopic loss of healthy tissue can lead to severe consequences, including impact on quality of life.

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The scientists will also focus on developing a flexible, optical fibre-based system that can target and remove cancer cells two orders of magnitude smaller than current technology.

Professor David Jayne, a consultant surgeon at Leeds Teaching Hospital NHS Trust, said: “Surgical lasers open up exciting new approaches for cancer surgery.

“The precision of a laser combined with imaging to accurately discriminate cancer from normal tissue will greatly enhance the ability of surgeons to completely remove cancers with minimal side-effects for patients.”

The team will be working on developing the system over the next three years.

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