Microscope uses nanosecond-speed laser and deep learning to detect cancer cells more efficiently

April 13, 2016

This microscope uses specially designed optics that boost image clarity and slows them enough to be detected and digitized at a rate of 36 million images per second. It then uses deep learning to distinguish cancer cells from healthy white blood cells. (credit: Tunde Akinloye/CNSI)

Scientists at the California NanoSystems Institute at UCLA have developed a new technique for identifying cancer cells in blood samples faster and more accurately than the current standard methods.

In one common approach to testing for cancer, doctors add biochemicals to blood samples. Those biochemicals attach biological “labels” to the cancer cells, and those labels enable instruments to detect and identify them. However, the biochemicals can damage the cells and render the samples unusable for future analyses. There are other current techniques that don’t use labeling but can be inaccurate because they identify cancer cells based only on one physical characteristic.

Time-stretch quantitative phase imaging (TS-QPI) and analytics system

The new technique images cells without destroying them and can identify 16 physical characteristics — including size, granularity and biomass — instead of just one.

Time-stretch quantitative phase imaging (TS-QPI) and analytics system (credit: Claire Lifan Chen et al./Nature Scientific Reports)

The new technique combines two components that were invented at UCLA:

  • A “photonic time stretch” microscope, which is capable of quickly imaging cells in blood samples. Invented by Barham Jalali, professor and Northrop-Grumman Optoelectronics Chair in electrical engineering, it works by taking pictures of flowing blood cells using laser bursts (similar to how a camera uses a flash). Each flash only lasts nanoseconds (billionths of a second) to avoid damage to cells, but that normally means the images are both too weak to be detected and too fast to be digitized by normal instrumentation. The new microscope overcomes those challenges by using specially designed optics that amplify and boost the clarity of the images, and simultaneously slow them down enough to be detected and digitized at a rate of 36 million images per second.
  • A deep learning computer program, which identifies cancer cells with more than 95 percent accuracy. Deep learning is a form of artificial intelligence that uses complex algorithms to extract patterns and knowledge from rich multidimenstional datasets, with the goal of achieving accurate decision making.

The study was published in the open-access journal Nature Scientific Reports. The researchers write in the paper that the system could lead to data-driven diagnoses by cells’ physical characteristics, which could allow quicker and earlier diagnoses of cancer, for example, and better understanding of the tumor-specific gene expression in cells, which could facilitate new treatments for disease.

The research was supported by NantWorks, LLC.

Abstract of Deep Learning in Label-free Cell Classification

Label-free cell analysis is essential to personalized genomics, cancer diagnostics, and drug development as it avoids adverse effects of staining reagents on cellular viability and cell signaling. However, currently available label-free cell assays mostly rely only on a single feature and lack sufficient differentiation. Also, the sample size analyzed by these assays is limited due to their low throughput. Here, we integrate feature extraction and deep learning with high-throughput quantitative imaging enabled by photonic time stretch, achieving record high accuracy in label-free cell classification. Our system captures quantitative optical phase and intensity images and extracts multiple biophysical features of individual cells. These biophysical measurements form a hyperdimensional feature space in which supervised learning is performed for cell classification. We compare various learning algorithms including artificial neural network, support vector machine, logistic regression, and a novel deep learning pipeline, which adopts global optimization of receiver operating characteristics. As a validation of the enhanced sensitivity and specificity of our system, we show classification of white blood T-cells against colon cancer cells, as well as lipid accumulating algal strains for biofuel production. This system opens up a new path to data-driven phenotypic diagnosis and better understanding of the heterogeneous gene expressions in cells.