Fluorescence lifetime imaging of unstained tissues: early results in human breast cancer

Document Type



Pathology and Laboratory Medicine


Fluorescence lifetime imaging (FLIM) depends on the fluorescence decay differences between tissues to generate image contrast. In the present study FLIM has been applied to fixed (but unstained) breast cancer tissues to demonstrate the feasibility of this approach for histopathological assessment. As the FLIM method relies on natural autofluorescence, it may be possible to circumvent tissue processing altogether and so FLIM has the potential to be a powerful new method of in vivo tissue imaging via an endoscopic or per-operative approach in a variety of organs, as well as a research tool for in vivo animal models of disease. Unstained, alcohol-fixed tissue samples from 13 patients were stimulated by laser pulses at 415 nm. The temporal decay of the autofluorescence was imaged over a period of 2 ns after cessation of the pulse. The decay rate at each image pixel was calculated as the ‘lifetime’ factor τ. A tissue classification scheme was used to define regions in each image. The average lifetimes of different tissue regions were compared. A total of 167 tissue regions were measured. Within individual fields, stroma had a larger τ (slower decay) than epithelium (p < 0.001). Within individual patients (taking the mean τ of a given tissue type across all fields from each patient), there was a statistically significant difference between benign and malignancy-associated stroma (p < 0.05). Also, benign collagen had a longer τ than benign epithelium (p < 0.05). Multivariate analysis showed a significant difference between benign stroma, malignancy-associated stroma, blood vessels, and malignant epithelium (p < 0.05). Statistically significant differences between benign and malignancy-associated stroma were obtained even with small patient numbers, indicating that lifetime-based instruments can be developed for real-time diagnostic imaging with microscopic resolution.

Publication (Name of Journal)

The Journal of Pathology