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Researchers at the Royal Free Hospital and University College London are developing new optical techniques, to locate and assess a key lymph node to identify whether breast cancer has spread.

The technique uses fluorescent quantum dots to identify the "sentinel" node, and then scans the node with white light pulses to detect any cancer. A computer generated image is then created which automatically maps out areas of cancer.

"Optimum treatment of breast cancer depends on whether the cancer has spread to the sentinel node, the first lymph node draining the breast," says Dr Mohammed Keshtgar from the Royal Free Hospital. "This new method is harnessing nanotechnology to allow doctors to identify and remove the node and determine if it contains cancer cells."

The new techniques will markedly reduce the need for immediate laboratory analysis of the tissue with image interpretation by an expert. It would save time that could be used to start a treatment regime for the patient if cancer is found.

"Cancer diagnosis will be made much more efficient for doctors and patients," says Mohammed. "This new method has potential applications in a range of organs, particularly for detecting pre-cancer and early cancer in the oesophagus, mouth and skin. We are developing these techniques in the National Medical Laser Centre in UCL."

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