World’s smallest microscope a game changer for cancer surgery

A team of UWA researchers developed a ground-breaking technology which could improve surgical outcomes for patients.
diversus devops
diversus devops
World’s smallest microscope a game changer for cancer surgery

One in four women who have a lump removed from their breast needs more surgery to remove remaining cancer cells.

That’s a pretty scary statistic for patients. And it’s one Professor David Sampson believes could be better.

“One of the main reasons [breast cancer patients need extra surgery] is because all of the tumour is not being identified. Because it can’t all be seen. Because you don’t have the resolution to see it,” David explains.

“So in many instances, resolution – being able to see very small things – is a key part of improving those guidance procedures.”

But what if we had a tool that could help surgeons find even the tiniest traces of cancer during an operation?

Big things come in small PACKAGES

Enter microscope-in-a-needle: The world’s smallest handheld microscope. It’s basically a needle shaft containing optical fibres, which can take images inside tissues at the microscopic level.

“An optical fibre is a very, very small thing. It’s about the thickness of a thick human hair,” he says.

“You can fit quite a few of them down many surgical needles… there’s tonnes of space in there!”

The device uses a technology called Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT). OCT measures where light is bouncing, reflecting and scattering inside the tissue. The needle emits a beam of light. The way that light beam reflects and scatters in the tissue helps build an image of what’s going on inside.

“It essentially measures the time it takes for light to go to a particular location in the tissue and come back. It allows you to pick out just those little beams of light which have gone straight through the tissue, hit something, and come straight back.”

“So we combine that in the needle to provide imaging beyond the end of the needle shaft inside of a tissue.”

Shining a light on cancer

These images have the potential to improve cancer surgeries. They can help the surgeon find trace cancer cells or assist them in identifying the full extent of a tumour.

Another good example is in oral cancer. One of the challenges when removing oral cancers is trying to find the bottom of the tumour. Using microscope-in-a-needle, surgeons could hunt and image until they found the bottom of the tumour. Knowing the exact location means they could remove less tissue during surgery.

“Given that inside your mouth that tissue could be jawbone… could be a piece of your tongue, the consequences are very dramatic in removing the tissue, so the less tissue you can remove the better the surgical outcomes are for the patient.”

View Larger

Anthony Phan holding a microscope-in-a-needle

But it isn’t just cancer surgery which could be improved by this revolutionary technique. David believes the microscope-in-a-needle could have any number of applications, but they mostly fall into two main categories.

“The main problems [microscope-in-a-needle] will help to attack are based on surgical guidance or biopsy guidance. Either helping the surgeon understand where they’re going in the tissue or actually helping them know they are about to select a sample of tissue that is in exactly the right place.” He explains.

“Those two concepts apply throughout all sorts of different surgery. We initially began doing a lot of work in breast cancer; there is now work going on in brain surgery… there is a lot of potential in prostate surgery – it goes on and on.”

For each potential application of this technology, the needle could be customised to perform the task better. For example, in the treatment of breast cancer, the technology could be more beneficial for surgeons if it could image a larger volume of tissue.

With that in mind, the microscope-in-a-needle could be thought of as the foundation technology for a whole host of new, specialised technologies. This has inspired the research group to re-engineer some of the technologies themselves.

“We’ve got a bunch of things that are actually looking really promising for improving the quality of the images that we get,” he says.

“One of those things is… improving the capacity of the needle to deliver fluids. I think that is a very exciting area… another one is developing the capacity for the needle to feel – to be able to measure stiffness.”

Two Heads are better than one

With so many possible uses to explore, the team can’t do it all themselves. For each application of this technology, there is a lot of work involved with following it through to the end product. Which is why David hopes more people will jump on board with the technology.

“There aren’t enough of us to drive all the possible directions,” he explains.

“What we would love to see is there to be many, many more groups all around the world tackling different applications with the same foundation technology.”

If you’d like to find out more about this exciting tech, check out their website.

diversus devops
About the author
diversus devops
View articles


We've got chemistry, let's take it to the next level!

Get the latest WA science news delivered to your inbox, every fortnight.


Creative Commons Logo

Republishing our content

We want our stories to be shared and seen by as many people as possible.

Therefore, unless it says otherwise, copyright on the stories on Particle belongs to Scitech and they are published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

This allows you to republish our articles online or in print for free. You just need to credit us and link to us, and you can’t edit our material or sell it separately.

Using the ‘republish’ button on our website is the easiest way to meet our guidelines.


You cannot edit the article.

When republishing, you have to credit our authors, ideally in the byline. You have to credit Particle with a link back to the original publication on Particle.

If you’re republishing online, you must use our pageview counter, link to us and include links from our story. Our page view counter is a small pixel-ping (invisible to the eye) that allows us to know when our content is republished. It’s a condition of our guidelines that you include our counter. If you use the ‘republish’ then you’ll capture our page counter.

If you’re republishing in print, please email us to let us so we know about it (we get very proud to see our work republished) and you must include the Particle logo next to the credits. Download logo here.

If you wish to republish all our stories, please contact us directly to discuss this opportunity.


Most of the images used on Particle are copyright of the photographer who made them.

It is your responsibility to confirm that you’re licensed to republish images in our articles.


All Particle videos can be accessed through YouTube under the Standard YouTube Licence.

The Standard YouTube licence

  1. This licence is ‘All Rights Reserved’, granting provisions for YouTube to display the content, and YouTube’s visitors to stream the content. This means that the content may be streamed from YouTube but specifically forbids downloading, adaptation, and redistribution, except where otherwise licensed. When uploading your content to YouTube it will automatically use the Standard YouTube licence. You can check this by clicking on Advanced Settings and looking at the dropdown box ‘License and rights ownership’.
  2. When a user is uploading a video he has license options that he can choose from. The first option is “standard YouTube License” which means that you grant the broadcasting rights to YouTube. This essentially means that your video can only be accessed from YouTube for watching purpose and cannot be reproduced or distributed in any other form without your consent.


For more information about using our content, email us:

Copy this HTML into your CMS
Press Ctrl+C to copy