Nigerian-born scientist wins award for his cancer-seeing glasses

Dr. Achilefu, a professor of radiology and biomedical engineering

A Nigerian born scientist, Samuel Achilefu, has won the prestigious St. Louis Award for 2014 for creating cancer-visualizing glasses.

Dr. Achilefu, a professor of radiology and biomedical engineering, and his team developed the imaging technology in cancer diagnosis into a wearable night vision-like goggles so surgeons could see the cancer cells while operating.

“They basically have to operate in the dark,” Bloomberg Businessweek quoted Dr. Achilefu, 52, as saying.

“I thought, what if we create something that let’s you see things that aren’t available to the ordinary human eye.”

Dr. Achilefu won a scholarship from the French government to study at the University of Nancy, according to St. Louis Post-Dispatch, a regional newspaper in St. Louis, U.S., and is the 87th person to receive the annual award since it was established in 1931.

Married with two young children, Dr. Achilefu moved to St. Louis after he was hired by Mallinckrodt to start a new research department.

“Our efforts start with two words: ‘What if?'” Dr. Achilefu said during his acceptance speech.

“These words may sound simple, but they embody the belief that each person has the potential to make a difference, if only he or she can take the time to understand the problem.”

According to Bloomberg, the researchers’ technology requires two steps: First, surgeons inject a tiny quantity of an infrared fluorescent marker into the patient’s bloodstream. The peptides contained in the marker enables it to locate cancer cells and buries itself inside.

After the tracer flows through a patient’s body and clears from non-cancerous tissue – which lasts about four hours – the operation would begin. Wearing the goggle, the doctor can inspect tumours under an infra red light that reacts with the dye, causing cancer cells to glow from within.

This month, the goggles have been used on humans for the first time by surgeons at the Washington University School of Medicine.

Four patients suffering from breast cancer and over two dozen patients with melanoma or liver cancer have been operated on using the goggles since they were developed.

“The goggles function fantastically,” says Ryan Fields, a surgical oncologist who is collaborating with Dr. Achilefu to improve on the technology.

“They allow us to see the cells in real time, which is critical. Because the marker has not yet been FDA-approved, doctors are currently using a different, somewhat inferior marker that also reacts with infrared light.”

Julie Margenthaler, a breast cancer surgeon, says tens of thousands of women who had had breast cancer lumpectomies go back for second operations every year because of the inability to see the microscopic extent of the tumours.

“Imagine what it would mean if these glasses eliminated the need for follow-up surgery and the associated pain, inconvenience and anxiety.”

Dr. Achilefu and his team began work in 2012 after they received $2.8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Before then, they had been working on a lean budget provided by the Department of Defence’s Breast Cancer Research Program.

After it was developed, the team spent years testing the technology on mice, rats, and rabbits to confirm the efficacy of the goggles.

“Nobody would believe us until we showed that the goggles work,” Dr. Achilefu says.

The Food and Drug Administration are still reviewing the goggles and a related dye Dr. Achilefu and his co-researchers developed, according to Washington University in St. Louis, a St. Louis based journal.

Dr. Achilefu says he intends to keep Washington University as the primary centre for clinical trials to evaluate the technology in patients.

“Making a difference in society should be the goal of everybody,” Dr. Achilefu


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  • Julius

    Thank you Dr. We are proud of you. Keep up the good work. God bless !!

  • Maitama Tambari.

    That is. “Making a difference in society should be the goal of everybody,” Dr. Achilefu

  • Anne

    Congratulations to Dr Samuel Achilefu. He is Nigerian born scientist award winner making waves in cancer research in the Usa. We are also giving our gratitude to the country and institutions that gave him the opportunity to use his talents to such an excellent end. Here in Nigeria our Nigerian”factor” would have killed his dreams,by out zoning him of needed grants or scholarship to do his research. Thank God the western world is giving Nigerians such opportunities to develop and contribute their quota to world in need..Thank you, America.

  • Otile

    What if Nigeria could enable this kind of opportunities to her teaming intelligent, talented youths? Come to the United States and see how youths of Nigerian ancestry are breaking records in all endevours of science and technology you will think of gathering all looting politicians at home and burn them alive. Nigerian looting politicians are Nigeria’s worst enemies.

    Congratulations, Dr Achilefu.

  • Pause

    They would have used quota system to send him to push wheel barrow in Aba. If he had contested presidential elections Many Yorubas and Islamic north would have voted for even NAMAA, not him.

    Anyway success has no tribe. Now he is a NIGERIA!!! Kai….what a people.

  • umunnem

    Would be nice if this Team can go one step and inject chemo medicine into the infrared markers. That way, only cancer cells are killed. Presently, both good and bad cells are killed during chemo. Way to go my Nigerian African Black American Brother.

  • amador kester

    Had he been living in nigeria he would have been busy talking senseless politics with no time for research! A jinxed nation

  • Temitope Onifade

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  • Yasin

    Thank you for doing us all proud. May Allah increase his blessings on you.

  • emmanuel

    The Igbos are onoy fit to break world records outside. There is no room for them in Nigeria when the Yorubas and Fulanis have all. Meanwhile, the sophisticated ethnic group is busy cooking human meat in Ijebu for rituals and wanting to appropriate all APC political booties. God bless the Igbos I am proud of your global exploits!