In population screening programmes for cervical cancer, at any suspicion of abnormality, women are referred for a cervical biopsy, an examination in which a small piece of tissue is removed from the cervix and sent to the lab for analysis. The tests are expensive and time consuming, and they can be painful to the patient, both physically and psychologically. More than half of those biopsies eventually turn out negative, meaning that there was no cancer to start with.
A ‘filter’ in the screening process
A team of researchers at VU Amsterdam, including Davide Iannuzzi (Professor of Biophotonics & Medical Imaging) and his former PhD student Luca Bartolini, is working on the DIADELPH project (also known as 2SIGNAL). They are developing an endoscope that can be used to image the cervix via a quick, cost effective, and non-invasive approach. This device obtains two known indicators of (pre)cancerous lesions: a subsurface 3D image of the cervix, and its stiffness. The new endoscope could function as a ‘filter’ in the screening process, helping to reduce the unnecessary biopsies by excluding (pre)cancerous lesions at an earlier stage. Moreover, if a biopsy is deemed necessary, this device may also be used to suggest the ideal sampling site.
In this video, Bartolini (the postdoctoral researcher at VU Amsterdam, co-inventor of the technique) summarizes the project as follows: “Our innovative medical device would improve the quality of life of millions of women that take part in cervical cancer screening programmes and reduce the physical, psychological and financial costs for them and society”.
From concept to commercially viable product
The physical examination made possible by the new endoscope may help gynaecologists to make more accurate diagnoses. Iannuzzi explains: “We have already developed a prototype for dermatological analysis. This research grant will enable us to analyse business opportunities and to identify each of the stakeholders needed to make the transition from a proof of concept to a commercially viable product. This will involve a collaborative effort by a team of physicists, engineers, medical doctors, and business developers.” In addition to the Proof of Concept grant, Iannuzzi has been awarded a Take-off grant by the Dutch Research Council (NWO - a science funding body), for the DIADELPH project.
In 2020, the ERC awarded a total of 166 Proof of Concept grants to scientists from 21 different countries. Four grants went to scientists at VU Amsterdam.
Image: animation prototype DIADELPH