Meet Dr Samuel Achilefu, award-winning Nigerian scientist and inventor of ‘cancer goggles’


Nigerian scientist and inventor, Dr Samuel Achilefu, is still making news months after he broke new ground in surgical treatments of cancer by inventing cancer-visualising glasses, now commonly known as ‘cancer goggles’

It was an inscription his father left on the wall of their home when Dr Samuel Achilefu was only 5 years-old that spurred him to achieve great heights: “When wealth is lost, nothing is lost. But when name is lost, everything is lost“.

According to Achilefu, this meant to him that “…one should be above reproach, that a good name trumps ill-gotten wealth. It set a moral standard that we should follow in life.”

One can understand how this maxim led to him being the brains behind a device that could help transform tens of thousands of cancer sufferers around the globe, into cancer survivors.

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.

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.”

The award is given to a resident of the St. Louis area whose achievements reflect positively on the community. In January this year stood in front of his peers at the Eric P. Newman Center for Education to receive his accolade.

“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.”

Samuel Achilefu
Samuel Achilefu receiving his award at the Eric P. Newman Education Center. Photo: Robert Boston

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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