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Butterfly vision is helping scientists improve cancer detection

In the quest to advance medical diagnostics, scientists often turn to nature for inspiration. A remarkable example of this is found in butterfly vision, which has inspired an exciting development in cancer detection technology.

The inspiration comes from the Papilio xuthus butterfly’s ability to perceive ultraviolet (UV) light — a feat far beyond human capabilities. By tapping into this natural superpower, researchers have developed an imaging sensor that could revolutionize how we identify cancer cells.

Butterfly vision is unique

At the heart of this breakthrough is the butterfly’s unique visual system. They can detect a spectrum of colors, including UV light.

Elephants, mantis shrimp, and turtles, too, have senses that surpass human abilities. However, it’s butterfly vision that has opened new avenues in medical imaging.

The research was led by Professor Viktor Gruev and Professor Shuming Nie of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

“We’ve taken inspiration from the visual system of butterflies, who are able to perceive multiple regions in the UV spectrum, and designed a camera that replicates that functionality,” said Professor Gruev. 

“We did this by using novel perovskite nanocrystals, combined with silicon imaging technology, and this new camera technology can detect multiple UV regions.”

Photoreceptors for cancer detection

The human eye is limited to three photoreceptors in the spectrum of red, green, and blue. By contrast, the Papilio xuthus butterfly’s eyes boast six or more photoreceptor classes, enabling them to see additional colors such as violet and various shades of UV. 

To mimic this, the researchers employed perovskite nanocrystals (PNCs) in tandem with silicon technology to create an imaging sensor capable of detecting multiple UV regions with high precision.

Perovskite nanocrystals

Perovskite nanocrystals, known for their exceptional light-absorption and emission properties, are particularly adept at sensing UV wavelengths, which have traditionally been challenging to capture due to their tendency to be absorbed by most materials. 

By incorporating perovskite nanocrystals, the sensor can absorb UV photons and re-emit them in the visible spectrum, which is then picked up by silicon photodiodes. This technology allows for the detailed mapping of UV signatures, which is instrumental in distinguishing cancer cells from healthy ones.

Biomedical markers 

The differentiation is possible because of the autofluorescence of biomedical markers like amino acids, proteins, and enzymes that are present in higher concentrations in cancerous tissues. 

When exposed to UV light, these markers emit light in the UV and visible spectrum. The imaging device developed by Gruev and Nie’s team can identify these unique spectral signatures with an impressive 99 percent confidence.

“Imaging in the UV region has been limited and I would say that has been the biggest roadblock for making scientific progress,” explained Nie. “Now we have come up with this technology where we can image UV light with high sensitivity and can also distinguish small wavelength differences.”

Butterfly vision and cancer detection

There are many potential applications for the sensor. For example, it could be used to assist surgeons in determining the precise amount of tissue to remove during cancerous tumor excisions. 

Furthermore, this technology could improve our understanding of the many other species that perceive UV light, revealing insights into their behaviors and interactions within their ecosystems, even underwater.

“This new imaging technology is enabling us to differentiate cancerous versus healthy cells and is opening up new and exciting applications beyond just health,” said Nie. 

The research is published in the journal Science Advances.

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