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"Shutterfly" -- The Discovery Files

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Researchers have developed a surgical camera inspired by the eye of the morpho butterfly. Connected to surgical goggles, it lets surgeons see infrared signals given off by tumor-binding dyes so the surgeon can remove all of the cancerous tissue.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

Giving the eyes -- wings.

I'm Bob Karson with the Discovery Files, from the National Science Foundation.

For surgeons, finding cancer is easier when viewed through "the eye of a butterfly." A research team from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Washington University in St. Louis has developed a surgical camera -- taking their inspiration from the visual structures of the Morpho butterfly. Those nanostructures in the eye allow it to see objects in normal, visible light and near-infrared at the same time.

The new camera uses the same kind of nanostructures, and is integrated into surgical goggles. It lets surgeons see infrared signals given off by special dyes that bind specifically to cancer cells. Think fluorescent signs flashing, (Sound effect: warning sounds) "cancer cells here!" No cancer cell can hide ensuring the most complete removal.

In tests, the camera could pick up signals beneath the surface of the tissue, and surgeons could locate tumor sites through the skin. The deep imaging capability also helped them find the lymph nodes surrounding a tumor more quickly.

(Sound effect: Operating room) Many surgeons rely on sight and touch to find cancerous tissue during surgery. Some hospitals use near-infrared fluorescent dyes, but with specialized machines that are large and costly. The team expects the new goggles to cost about $200.

A butterfly's eye inspires a Shutterfly idea.

"The discovery files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research -- brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

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