A new laser system that could help surgeons remove cancer more precisely and safely is being developed by scientists.


Experts at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh are developing a new system that will help surgeons distinguish cancer cells in much better resolution, and remove them without damaging healthy surrounding tissue.

Professor Jonathan Shephard has been given £1.2m by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) to develop the system.

The new system will be based around ultrafast picosecond lasers that deliver energy in a series of pulses that are one trillionth of a second long.

The team has already proved the concept works for colorectal cancers, and are now working with clinicians at the University of Leeds and Leeds Teaching Hospital NHS Trust to develop the new system for brain cancers.

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“Previously we focused on colorectal cancers. 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," said Prof Shephard.

“Because the laser pulses are so short, there is no time for heat to burn the surrounding tissue, which is what happens with current surgical tools.

“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.

“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.

“This is an ultimate test of precision, even microscopic loss of healthy tissue and damage to nearby vital structures can have severe functional consequences and a huge impact on quality of life.”


The team 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 over the next three years.

Reader Q and A: How does radiation kill cancer if it causes cancer?

Asked by: Odysseus Ray Lopez, US

It’s rather like the way guns can be used to commit crime, or stop it. Radiation causes cancer because its high-energy photons can cause breaks in the DNA strands in your cells. Cells can repair this damage up to a point, but sometimes the repair isn’t perfect and leaves some genes defective.

If the break affects one of the many tumour-suppressing genes in your DNA, that cell can become cancerous. But cancer cells are also more vulnerable to radiation than ordinary cells. Part of what makes them cancer cells is their ability to divide rapidly and this normally means that some of the DNA ‘spellcheck’ mechanisms are turned off.

So when a cancer cell suffers a break in a DNA strand, it’s less likely to repair it correctly. Depending where the break occurs, it might either kill the cell outright, or make it reproduce more slowly.

Radiation therapy uses a focused beam that is aimed at just the part of the body with the tumour, and the dose is carefully calculated to cause the minimum collateral damage to healthy cells. Even so, radiation therapy does very slightly increase your chances of developing a second cancer.

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Jason Goodyer
Jason GoodyerCommissioning editor, BBC Science Focus

Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Instant Genius Podcast.