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Tiny fallopian camera could detect ovarian cancer earlier

Ovarian cancer ranks among the deadliest cancers affecting women, in part because doctors lack means to catch it before it spreads. A new instrument could help change that — by looking in the fallopian tubes.

Jennifer Barton, director of UA's BIO5 Institute, created the tiny new endoscope. She says the idea grew from a conversation with a desperately exasperated gynecological oncologist. 

"She worked with ovarian cancer patients, and she was tired of seeing them die," said Barton.

Recent research reveals that many ovarian cancers begin as lesions in the fallopian tubes. Barton combined that knowledge with recent advances in fiber optic sensors to create a scope 0.8 millimeters in diameter.

The instrument can image the tubes using three different methods: fluorescence imaging to examine metabolic and functional changes; optical coherence tomography to observe structural changes; and white light reflectance imaging for navigation.

“Fiber optics got better; sensors got smaller; materials got better, thinner, stronger, lighter. And so finally we had the technology to be able to build an endoscope that could go through the uterus and into the fallopian tubes,” she said.

The device is currently being tested in patient volunteers who are already having their fallopian tubes removed.

"They agree to pause their surgery and let us take some images, and then they continue with their surgery," said Barton.

Once it receives approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the falloposcope could be used in screenings that are more accurate and less invasive than current options.

"We know that at the very least it would be something similar to a colonoscopy, where it's an outpatient procedure; it's not a major procedure, but it does involve some sedation. And that would definitely be possible. We do hope that we can make this comfortable enough that it could be just done in a doctor's office as part of the gynecological examination," said Barton.

Unlike ultrasounds or MRIs, the scope could detect cancers when they are small and have yet to metastasize. That could save lives. It could also reduce the need to preemptively remove fallopian tubes and ovaries in high-risk patents, a procedure that can induce early menopause.

"That's our whole point in doing this. You know, for every 100 women who's at high risk for ovarian cancer and has their tubes and ovaries removed prophylactically, only about five of them will actually have needed that surgery," said Barton.

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Nicholas Gerbis was a senior field correspondent for KJZZ from 2016 to 2024.