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Samuel Achilefu: The “Cancer Goggles” Inventor

Samuel Achilefu was born in Northern Nigeria a little after the country gained independence. But his comfortable life in the North suddenly went awry when the civil war broke out.

Having relocated to the East, he attended “village schools” (primary and secondary) which, he says, had exceptionally intelligent students with no funds.

An intelligent student, his interest in French won him a French government scholarship. That, in turn, earned him a PhD in Molecular and Material Chemistry at the University of Nancy. He would go on to do his post-doctoral study at Oxford University.

Upon completing his study, he relocated to the United States and joined the Discovery Research Department at Mallinckrodt Medical Inc in 1993. In 2001, he joined Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology at Washington University School of Medicine with several interests in medical research. This included molecular optical imaging of tumours and angiogenesis, development of new molecular probes, nanomaterials and other pathophysiologic processes, and the delivery of imaging agents and drugs to target cell organelles or tissue.

Achilefu rose to international prominence after designing high-magnification goggles to help surgeons “see” cancer cells. These high-tech goggles, which took he and his team five years to develop, see the cancer cells in blue fluorescent light so that every cancer tumour is carefully singled out and picked during surgery.

In 2014, the professor, who is also a co-director at Alvin J. Siteman Cancer Centre, was awarded the St. Louis Award at the Eric P. Newman Education Center. In 2016, he became the first to win the Breast Cancer Research Programme Distinguished Investigator Award.

The Nigerian believes he is not done yet as he has developed “a new approach to kill cancer”.

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