New tool sharpens surgeons’ vision

By Blythe Bernhard / St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Published Mar 6, 2014 at 12:01AM

ST. LOUIS — Which superhuman power would you choose for help on the job? For Dr. Julie Margenthaler, it’s a technology that brings to mind X-ray vision, used for the first time last month during an operation to remove a patient’s lymph node.

“It’s like I’m in a sci-fi movie,” Margenthaler said after she put on goggles that allowed her to see the patient’s lymph node light up with a fluorescent blue glow invisible to the naked eye. A video camera projected the surgeon’s visual field onto the screen inside the goggles and on a computer screen in the operating room.

The new technology developed at Washington University may eventually be used to see microscopic cancer cells during surgery and enable a more thorough removal of tumors. For now, the research team is testing the goggles on 20 to 30 breast cancer and melanoma patients to find lymph nodes that will be tested for possible spread of the cancer.

“It was a lot less cumbersome than I thought it would be,” Margenthaler said of the lightweight goggles that telescope the surgeon’s visual field. “When I had (the patient’s) lymph node between my two forceps it was lighting up very well.”

After the surgical staff helped Margenthaler put on the goggles, the team cheered when the process worked as planned.

“We’re all interested in finding some way to perfect our surgical technique and ultimately find cancer cells earlier,” Margenthaler said after the one-hour hospital procedure.