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Meet Dr Samuel Achilefu, the Nigerian Radiologist Who Made a Breakthrough in Cancer Surgery by Creating High-tech Infrared Goggles

Dr. Samuel Achilefu, professor and Ghief of the optical radiology lab at Washington University School of Medicine, was honored with the 2014 St. Louis Award for his contributions to cancer treatment research.

Born to Nigerian parents during the Biafran War, he helped developed high-tech glasses that help surgeons visualize cancer cells during surgery. He is the 87th recipient of the award, established in 1931 by leading philanthropist David Wohl.

Here are some facts about the scholar…

*Samuel Achilefu, PhD was age five years old when the Biafran civil war forced his family to move to a safer area in Nigeria and start life anew.

*His first sojourn abroad was on a French government scholarship, and postdoctoral training in oxygen transport mechanisms culminating in his PhD in molecular physical and materials chemistry at the University of Nancy, France.

*Achilefu came to St. Louis in 1993 to join the nascent Discovery Research Department at Mallinckrodt Medical Inc. In 2001, he joined Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology at Washington University.

*He lives with his wife and two teenage children.

* On Jan. 14, the scientist received the St. Louis Award at the Eric P. Newman Education Center. The honor, awarded almost every year since 1932, recognizes area residents whose achievements reflect positively on the community. Achilefu was recognized for leading a team that developed high-tech goggles.

According to Washington University in St. Louis, Achilefu’s ‘cancer goggles’ are designed to make it easier for surgeons to distinguish malignant cells from healthy cells, helping to ensure that no stray tumour cells are left behind during surgery to remove a cancerous tumour. The glasses could reduce the need for additional surgical procedures and the subsequent stress on patients, as well as time and expense. The system uses custom video technology, a head-mounted display and a targeted molecular display that attaches itself to cancer cells, giving them a ‘glow’ when viewed through the eye gear.

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Achilefu, who is 53, in his acceptance speech said: “They basically have to operate in the dark”.

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

Our efforts start with two words: ‘What if? 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.”

Before surgery, imaging tests involving big, high-tech machines can create detailed pictures of a person’s cancer, Achilefu said: “but when a patient is in the operating room, it’s like walking in the dark.”

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Dr Achilefu demonstrating the use of the eyewear. Photo: BBC

“A limitation of surgery is that it’s not always clear to the naked eye the distinction between normal tissue and cancerous tissue,” Ryan Fields, MD, an assistant professor of surgery who has used the goggles with melanoma patients at Siteman Cancer Center, said last year. “With the glasses developed by Dr. Achilefu, we can better identify the tissue that must be removed.”

After receiving a PhD in molecular physical and materials chemistry at the University of Nancy, France, where he attended on a French government scholarship, and postdoctoral training in oxygen transport mechanisms, Achilefu moved to St. Louis, US in 1993 to join the nascent Discovery Research Department at Mallinckrodt Medical Inc. Currently, he serves as a Washington University School of Medicine Professor of Medicine.

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