Meet Dr Samuel Achilefu, the Nigerian radiologist who made a breakthrough in cancer surgery by creating high-tech infrared goggles

Meet Dr Samuel Achilefu, the Nigerian Radiologist who invented high-tech infrared goggles to enable surgeons to see cancer cells during surgery (Everythingradiography)
  • Cancer is the second leading cause of death across the world. In 2018, it was responsible for an estimated 9.6 million deaths.
  • Since there is no cure yet, surgery remains one of the best forms of treatment. 
  • Surgery, which is used to diagnose or remove cancer, has been radically improved by an invention made by a Nigerian-born radiologist named Dr Samuel Achilefu.

Meet Dr Samuel Achilefu, the Nigerian radiologist responsible for high-tech infrared goggles.

Thanks to his invention, otherwise known as “cancer goggles”, surgeons can now ‘see’ cancerous cells.

He was born in northern Nigeria in 1963. He moved to the south-east with his family when he was about five years old because of the civil war.

There, young Achilefu had his primary and secondary education until he won a French government scholarship to attend graduate school in France.

Abroad, he received a PhD in molecular and materials chemistry at the University of Nancy. He had his post-doctoral studies at Oxford University, training on the “interface between chemistry and haematology, working on developing blood substitutes”. He went on to join several research institutes and laboratories.

Before his creation, doctors found it difficult to completely remove cancer tumours during surgery.

This is why the Professor of Radiology, Biomedical Engineering, Biochemistry, and Molecular Biophysics was inspired to make these glasses.

“I thought, what if we create something that lets one see things that aren’t available to the ordinary human eye…?” he stated during an award acceptance speech at the Eric P. Newman Education Centre in St Louis.

Achilefu and his team spent five years this wearable night vision-like goggles to help doctors differentiate between malignant cells and normal cells during surgery.

They did by making cancer cells glow by first injecting the patient with an infrared fluorescent marker which is picked up by the goggles.

This invention helps surgeons find the cancer cells and reduce the need for additional surgical procedures for the patients.

“A limitation of surgery is that it’s not always clear to the naked eye the distinction between normal tissue and cancerous tissue. With the glasses developed by Dr Achilefu, we can better identify the tissue that must be removed,” said Ryan Fields, MD, an assistant professor of surgery.

Achifelu’s cancer-seeing goggles have been used successfully in over 27 operations involving skin, liver and breast cancer patients.

“My final goal is really to make it a routine system that we can use in all hospitals,” he said in an interview with Al Jazeera. “For brain surgery for example, where you do not have the luxury of taking a lot of tissue, and you have to be highly specific. In that particular case, these goggles would be a lifesaver. The goal is to be able to detect very small cells but the current imaging systems are not capable of doing that”.

Achilefu's invention and ground breaking research has earned him over 30 local and international honours and awards including the following accolades:

  • The prestigious Britton Chance Biomedical Optics Award in 2019 at SPIE
  • Distinguished Investigator Award in 2018 (Academy for Radiology & Biomedical Imaging Research)
  • The Carl and Gerty Cori Faculty Achievement Award in 2018 (Washington University) Excellence in Healthcare Award in 2017 (St. Louis American)
  • The first Department of Defense Distinguished Investigator Award in 2016 (DoD Breast Cancer Research Program)
  • Becoming the first recipient of the Breast Cancer Research Programme Distinguished Investigator Award in 2016 
  • Outstanding Scientist Award in 2015 (St. Louis Academy of Science)
  • Best Global Impact 2015 (Alive magazine)
  • St. Louis Innovator Award 2015
  • The Medical Innovation Award in 2014 (St. Louis Business Journal)
  • The St. Louis Award in 2014 (St. Louis Award Committee)
  • Featured Innovator 2014 (Bloomberg BusinessWeek)
  • Achiever Award 2008 (Blacks in Science)
  • Extraordinary Performance Award 1998 (Mallinckrodt, Inc.)
  • Technical Innovation Award 1995 (Mallinckrodt Medical, Inc.).
  • Extraordinary performance award, Mallinckrodt, Inc 1995

Achilefu is married with two children.

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