A cut above – tapping into a $200 million global market

By Wilson da Silva

Credit: Rumman Amin / Unsplash

It’s not often that medical studies into better brain surgery can end up leading to lamb roasts that are a cut above. But that’s what research by Prof Robert McLaughlin‘s team at the Centre for Nanoscale BioPhotonics (CNBP) is doing.

‘I was telling Meat & Livestock Australia that we had this tiny camera in a needle that is great at seeing fat in tissue, but there aren’t many diseases where this is useful. And they got really excited,’ he said.

‘It turns out that the single biggest indicator of quality in lamb meat is the percentage of fat.’

Prof McLaughlin, who leads bioengineering at CNBP’s University of Adelaide node, has been developing a new imaging probe, so small it can fit inside a hypodermic needle. Although the probe was originally created to help identify cancer in breast tissue, Prof McLaughlin’s team found that it was much better at recognising minuscule blood vessels and fat tissue. And this turned out to be a boon for brain biopsies.

A brain biopsy is a common surgical procedure used to diagnose tumours and other diseases, and while it is minimally invasive, it still carries risks. ‘There’s always a chance you’ll hit a blood vessel and cause a brain bleed, which can kill a patient or damage the brain,’ he said. ‘About 1% of patients die from a brain bleed during a biopsy, and 2-3% are left permanently disabled.’

CNBP’s ‘imaging needle’ can reliably detect blood vessels that are wider than 0.5mm. It shines an infrared beam from the tip of the needle, allowing surgeons to identify — and avoid — important blood vessels, reducing the risk of bleeds. The technology has already been used successfully in live patients undergoing brain surgery and, if it passes larger trials and is commercialised into clinical practice, could not only make for safer neurosurgery, but tap a potential $200 million global market.

Not only that, it turns out the imaging needle can also easily and quickly recognise, and quantify, fat content in tissue with just a poke or two. And that’s where lamb roasts come in.

‘In a lamb roast, you get tiny bits of fat between the muscle fibres,’ Prof McLaughlin said. ‘The more fat, the more flavour and juiciness, which is the best indicator of quality. So, the fact that we had this needle technology that could see individual fat cells is incredibly important to the meat industry.’

Meat & Livestock Australia funded a study by Prof McLaughlin’s team in 2019 to see if the needle could be useful in assessing lamb meat — and was delighted with the result. ‘We looked at 250 lamb meat samples, analysing them for the percentage of fat. We found that our imaging needles were great at estimating the amount of fat that’s intrinsically in each piece of meat.’

His team is now looking to develop a handheld probe that meat assessors could use commercially. ‘Australia is recognised internationally as producing top quality meat and this technology could strengthen our exports because we will be able to measure and guarantee quality. It would provide Australian exporters [with] a huge advantage by being able to guarantee premium quality meat.’

‘This is one of those exciting moments in science when you develop a technology for medicine, but then realise that it has so many more uses,’ said Prof McLaughlin.