“We’ve been inundated,” he said from his desk in Washington University’s Mallinckrodt Institute, hours before receiving the 2014 St. Louis Award for his invention.
Achilefu counts 27 surgeries where his technology has been worn by doctors operating on patients with breast cancer, liver cancer and melanoma. An injected dye reacts with infrared light to make cancerous tissue light up, helping surgeons locate the tumor and separate it from healthy tissue.
He said he hopes the device becomes a cheaper, easier way for doctors to "see" tumors here and in the developing world. Because the goggles also project the surgeon’s view onto a computer screen, they could be adapted for use as a teaching tool.
Achilefu said the idea for the goggles was borrowed from other medical disciplines and born out of a need to reduce the number of instruments in a surgery room.
"Ophthalmologists use glasses. Neurosurgeons do the same thing, but with large microscopes,” Achilefu said. “The idea was what is the simplest device to create that is easy to use but still effective.”
Developing the goggles became a three year collaboration between radiologists, optical and sensory engineers, and surgeons — a tting development for the same radiology institute that invented the PET scan.
The St. Louis Award is given each year to honor a resident who has made an "outstanding contribution" to the community. Achilefu accepted his during a ceremony Wednesday evening in St. Louis.
Speaking by phone with St. Louis Public Radio, award committee president David Kemper said, “It just seemed natural,” to choose Achilefu for the honor.
“None of us knew him, but we knew of what was going on. We thought, 'Well, isn’t this fascinating, what a great contribution to society,'” Kemper said.
Achilefu grew up in the city of Aba, in southeastern Nigeria. After winning a government scholarship to study in France, he completed his studies at Oxford University before following a longtime mentor to the Mallinckrodt lab in 1993. He lives in the St. Louis area with his wife and two teenage children.
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