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Inventor of 'Cancer Goggles' Receives St. Louis Award

Ph.D. Biomedical Engineering student Suman Mondal demonstrates "cancer goggles" at Washington University's Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology. 1/14/15
Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio

One year after "cancer goggles" were first used in a successful breast cancer operation, Dr. Samuel Achilefu is still getting emails from surgeons all over the world, hoping for a chance to use them.  

“We’ve been inundated,” he said from his desk in Washington University’s Mallinckrodt Institute, hours before receiving the 2014 St. Louis Award for his invention.

Achilefu counts 27 surgeries where his technology has been worn by doctors operating on patients with breast cancer, liver cancer and melanoma. An injected dye reacts with infrared light to make cancerous tissue light up, helping surgeons locate the tumor and separate it from healthy tissue.

He said he hopes the device becomes a cheaper, easier way for doctors to "see" tumors here and in the developing world. Because the goggles also project the surgeon’s view onto a computer screen, they could be adapted for use as a teaching tool.

Dr. Samuel Achilefu, of Washington University in St. Louis. 01/14/15
Credit Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio
Dr. Samuel Achilefu, of Washington University in St. Louis.

Achilefu said the idea for the goggles was borrowed from other medical disciplines and born out of a need to reduce the number of instruments in a surgery room.

"Ophthalmologists use glasses. Neurosurgeons do the same thing, but with large microscopes,” Achilefu said. “The idea was what is the simplest device to create that is easy to use but still effective.”

Developing the goggles became a three year collaboration between radiologists, optical and sensory engineers, and surgeons — a fitting development for the same radiology institute that invented the PET scan.

The St. Louis Award is given each year to honor a resident who has made an "outstanding contribution" to the community. Achilefu accepted his during a ceremony Wednesday evening in St. Louis.

Speaking by phone with St. Louis Public Radio, award committee president David Kemper said, “It just seemed natural,” to choose Achilefu for the honor.

“None of us knew him, but we knew of what was going on. We thought, 'Well, isn’t this fascinating, what a great contribution to society,'” Kemper said. 

Achilefu grew up in the city of Aba, in southeastern Nigeria. After winning a government scholarship to study in France, he completed his studies at Oxford University before following a longtime mentor to the Mallinckrodt lab in 1993. He lives in the St. Louis area with his wife and two teenage children.

“I’m a good example that if you place anybody in a place and ask them to survive, they will. They will adapt to that language,” Achilefu joked. He speaks three languages fluently: Igbo, English and French.

As for the future of the goggles, Achilefu said he’d like to see them become easily accessible to low-resource areas, such as urban centers and rural hospitals. He and his colleagues are gathering data to apply for FDA approval.

“I hope that in other developing parts of the world that can’t afford imaging technologies, this becomes affordable and useful for them,” he said.

Another step will be adapting the goggles to magnify the surgeon’s view to streamline brain surgeries. Achilefu said that ideally, the image would be sharp enough to be magnified so that even a single cell could be identified by a neurosurgeon.

“Medicine becomes more objective if you can see what you are treating.” Achilefu said. “You have the confidence you are doing the right thing to the patient.” 

Follow Durrie Bouscaren on Twitter: @durrieB