Researchers develop world’s fastest camera for cancer hunting

Researchers develop world’s fastest camera for cancer hunting


Scientifically, the faster something moves the more difficult it is to see—but not for long. Engineers have developed an ultrafast camera capable of catching even cancer cells in their tracks. Bahram Jalali and Dino Di Carlo, both engineers at the University of California Los Angeles Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science, have changed the game for optical microscopy, and therefore, for science in general.

The new microscopic camera defies the typical problems with photographing movement, taking quality photographs at higher speeds. Officially named the “automated flow-through single-particle optical microscope,” according to an article on, the camera uses lasers, microfluidics, and a digital image processor to take 36.7 million frames per second. This means the camera is capable of taking, “[at] a flow rate of 4m/s [9mph]…images [of] 100,000 particles per second, at a quality comparable to a camera that can only shoot around 60 frames per second.” The speed and quality of the camera makes it the fastest and most high-tech imaging system in the world.

“This technology can significantly reduce errors and costs in medical diagnosis,” lead author Keisuke Goda, a UCLA program manager in electrical engineering and bioengineering, said in a school news release.

The article cites UCLA’s groundbreaking imaging method developed in 2009, Serial time-encoded amplified microscopy (or STEAM), as being influential in the development of this new camera. STEAM avoids the problems CCD or CMOS cameras—that’s charged-coupled or complementary metal oxide semiconductor, both digital camera sensors— have photographing objects in motion. STEAM can not only photograph a single cell with comparable CCD or CMOS still image quality, but it can do so as it flows through the microfluidic system.

Explaining how it works can be a bit complicated, so UCLA made a YouTube video to demonstrate the process. The microscope fires off picosecond long laser pulses that are reflected off a microfluidic device and then captured and amplified by a high-speed single-pixel photo-detector. The image is then illustrated on-screen by a Field-Programmable Digital Image Processor (or FPGA). The camera runs continuously, casting a steady gaze at the microfluidics under inspection.

“To catch these elusive cells, the camera must be able to capture and digitally process millions of images continuously at a very high frame rate,” Bahram Jalali, of the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science, noted in a statement. “Conventional … cameras are not fast and sensitive enough. It takes time to read the data from the array of pixels, and they become less sensitive to light at high speed.”

The team of scientists noted that the camera has the ability to detect rare cells, including those associated with certain types of cancer. Also, the camera’s rate of reliability is extraordinary, according to researchers, who say that false positives are less than one in a million.

“With training, the FPGA can automatically detect rare particles (such as cancer cells) 75% of the time.” Not only is the microscope some 100 times faster than its predecessors, but it also has a false-positive rate of about one in a million, making it reliable as well.

This not only gives doctors and patients the chance for an earlier diagnosis, but also helps the scientific community at large, since optical microscopy is used in every scientific field. The article shows just how far the new microscope has advanced, saying, “The STEAM system is easily capable of imaging 200,000 particles per second—when we can engineer a microfluidic device that can withstand twice the pressure.” With a camera capable of showing particles in real time, who knows where this exciting new technology could lead?