UCSF doctors use virtual screenings to save lives

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- In a high-tech imaging lab at the San Francisco VA, University of San Francisco radiologist Dr. Judy Yee, M.D. is taking an amazing journey through a patient's body. The images from inside the colon were actually captured by a CT scan with no camera or catheter inserted into the body. But like those traditional colonoscopies, the goal is to identify lesions or polyps that could turn into cancer.

"We would like to find the precursor lesion way before you actually develop the cancer. By the time you find the cancer, it's almost too late," said Yee.

Most Americans became familiar with virtual colonoscopy when President Barack Obama chose the procedure, which does not require anesthesia. But Dr. Yee says the technology has now made a dramatic leaps powerful software can gauge variables like tissue density to help diagnose polyps, but to experience the next breakthrough, you have to put on glasses.

"Here I'm taking a segment and opening it up for display," she explained.

At a workstation developed by Mountain View-based Echopixel, Yee can turn the colon into a virtual 3D hologram. With a laser pointer she can pull out sections at a time twisting and turning them to examine them from any angle.

"I can also grab this little piece of colon and have and cut through to an area I might be interested in, which I think is a real game changer," she said. "It takes flat images and brings them into the 3D space."

It's so powerful, doctors at UCSF believe they can use the holographic technology to better visualize the potential effect of changes during surgeries.

"And you'll be able to understand what the soft tissue is going to do in response to that," said oral surgeon Dr. Thad Connelly, M.D.

Back on the cancer front, Yee is hoping the less-invasive option will prompt more patients to undergo virtual colorectal screening, potentially saving thousands of lives.

"How many patients do you know that put off their colonoscopy because they don't want to have it," she said. "And it's too bad because in the time you put it off, the cancer can be evolving."

Written and produced by Tim Didion.
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