Professor Samuel Achilefu: The Nigerian Whose Invention Has Simplified Cancer Treatment

If it were possible for the plethora of Nigerians contributing to scientific breakthroughs in the United States to return home, the transformation of Nigeria into an industrialized country would be achieved effortlessly, and in no time. Among the Nigerians that have played significant roles in shaping America’s domination of the scientific world is Philip Emeagwali, the computer whiz kid who won the Gordon Bells Prize for designing the CM-2parallel computer, and Jelani Aliyu, who designed the Chevrolet Volt, a hybrid electric vehicle, and also co-designed the Oldsmobile Bravada Buick Rendezvous and Opel Astra for General Motors.

Today, the name of another Nigerian, Professor Samuel Achilefu, a radiologist of international repute, rings a bell not just in the USA where he is based, but also around the scientific world as the man who invented the world’s first ever cancer visualization googles, known as Cancer Viewing Glasses (CVG), to facilitate accurate seeing, detection and removal of cancer cells during surgery. With world-renowned expertise in the development and use of light-sensitive drugs for cancer detection, Achilefu’s latest discovery makes it easy for surgeons to distinguish between malignant and healthy cells, to ensure no tumour cells are left behind after surgery. The common practice before this invention has been to rely on vision and touch to distinguish cancerous cells from those that are healthy, which often leads to incomplete tumour removal, and sometimes a repeat of the surgery.

With the use of the CVG, commonly called ‘cancer googles, a cancer patient is first injected with a substance that makes the cancer cells to glow, which could be easily seen with the googles. This makes it easier for the cells to be removed during surgery. Before Achilefu’s discovery, doctors found it difficult to see little cancer cells to enable complete removal from patients’ bodies. Now, the story is different. A new era of relatively easier way to treat cancer has begun. “The cancer goggle works on the principle of optical imaging”, says a report on the invention.  “Optical imaging enables real-time visualization of intrinsic and exogenous contrast within biological tissues”. This invention is considered a major breakthrough in the concerted efforts to find an answer to the challenge that treatment and actual cure of cancer has posed to the medical world for decades.

Achilefu and his team of researchers spent five years to come up with the CVG, which is bound to revolutionize the treatment of cancer. His ultimate goal is to have the googles used in hospitals all over the world as part of cancer treatment.

Achilefu’s latest invention is just one of the many he has been accredited with. At the last count, he has over 59 United States patents for his inventions, and has published over 300 papers. Among his numerous achievements are the discovery of the fluorescent-targeting imaging agent (LS301) and the first-of-its-kind treatment of cancer with a special light, as well as pharmacological doses of drugs that could selectively cancer kill cells without harming the healthy ones.

The report describes Achilefu as, “an expert in the molecular imaging of human diseases, utilizing multimodal imaging methods to address imaging challenges, focusing on optical imaging platforms. His current research interests include image-guided cancer surgery, portable imaging devices, and nanotechnology. Through a multidisciplinary team of investigators, he has guided multiple research endeavors from concept to clinic”.

Multiple caps

Achilefu wears multiple caps, which are actually too numerous to mention in a short article. He is the Chief Scientific Officer of IntegroTheranostics, and also serves as the Professor and Chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, where he holds the Lyda Hill Distinguished University Chair in Biomedical Engineering, and has been deeply involved in research. He is a Professor of Radiology and a member of the Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center. “Before joining University of Texas Southwestern, he was the Michel M. Ter-Pogossian Professor of Radiology and Vice Chair for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology, Washington University School of Medicine. He held joint appointments as a professor of medicine, biochemistry and molecular biophysics, and biomedical engineering. He also served as the Director of the Washington University Molecular Imaging Center and the privately funded Theranostic Innovation Program and was co-director of the Center for Multiple Myeloma Nanotherapy and co-Leader of the Oncologic Imaging Program of the Alvin J. Siteman Cancer Center at Washington University”.

The report says more about Achilefu, as “…a member of the National Academy of Medicine and a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors as well as many professional societies, including the Royal Society of Chemistry; American Association for the Advancement of Science; the Optical Society of America; the International Society for Optics and Photonics Engineers (SPIE); the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering, and the St. Louis Academy of Science. A member of the National Advisory Council for Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NACBIB) and the Scientific Advisory Board of the National Cancer Institute’s intramural Molecular Imaging Program, he also serves as Editor-in-Chief of Current Analytical Chemistry and an editorial board member of many scientific publications. Dr. Achilefu is a former trustee of Loma Linda University in California. He was a member of the College of Reviewers for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and served as a member and chair of grant review panels for the NIH, the Department of Defense (DoD), and the Susan G. Komen Foundation”.

Achilefu has made numerous inventions that have had enormous clinical impact on his chosen field of medicine. A nationally recognized expert in molecular medicine, Achilefu’s “seminal work in the use of fluorescent molecules for real-time cancer imaging forms the foundation for this field of research”. Before assuming his current role at University of Texas Southwestern, he had held several professorships and played leadership roles during his 20-year tenure at Washington University School of Medicine. He also played similar roles with the Mallinckrodt Institute, the Molecular Imaging Centre and Sitman Cancer Centre.

Media and inventions linked to Achilefu

Physics Worlds – Optics and Photonics Spotlight
SPIE announces 2019 Society Awards
Scientists Report Advances in Light-source Medicine to Help Fight Metastatic Cancer
National Public Radio; Story Collider: When science complicates home and family
2018 AAAS Fellows approved by the AAAS Council
Tumor imaging technique has potential as anti-cancer weapon, mouse study shows
Glasses that make cancer glow
New high-tech glasses detect cancer cells during surgery
Goggles help surgeons ‘see’ tumours
Special glasses help surgeons ‘see’ cancer
Who to Watch: Samuel Achilefu, PhD
New ‘Cancer Goggles’ help surgeons spot malignant tumors
Hi-tech goggles ‘detect cancer cells”
Cancer-Spotting Goggles Help Surgeons Remove Diseased Cells
Medical Innovator Award: Sam Achilefu, Washington University School of Medicine
Inventor of ‘Cancer Goggles’ Receives St. Louis Award
Academy of Science-St. Louis honors Washington University researchers
Achilefu receives prestigious St. Louis Award


Among numerous educational attainments, Achilefu holds a PhD from the University of Nancy in France, where he was as a French Government Scholar. He received his postdoctoral training at Oxford University in England. Like a gold fish that has no hiding place, he shone like a star quite early, the reason he was spotted and head-hunted from Oxford to St. Louis to work for Mallinckrodt Medical in 1993.  He joined the Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology at Washington University in 2001, where he established the more than 80-member Optical Radiology program at the School of Medicine.

Awards and honours

As would be expected of an achiever of the caliber of Achilefu, the serial inventor has received over 30 local, national, and international honors and awards. These include the Britton Chance Biomedical Optics Award in 2019 at SPIE; Distinguished Investigator Award in 2018 (Academy for Radiology & Biomedical Imaging Research); Carl and Gerty Cori Faculty Achievement Award in 2018 (Washington University); Excellence in Healthcare Award in 2017 (St. Louis American) and the first Department of Defense Distinguished Investigator Award in 2016 (DoD Breast Cancer Research Program). He is also a recipient of the IEEE Donald G. Fink Award (2016); Outstanding Scientist Award in 2015 (St. Louis Academy of Science); Best Global Impact 2015 (Alive magazine); St. Louis Innovator Award 2015; the Medical Innovation Award in 2014 (St. Louis Business Journal) and the St. Louis Award in 2014 (St. Louis Award Committee). Other awards include the Featured Innovator 2014 (Bloomberg BusinessWeek); Achiever Award 2008 (Blacks in Science), Extraordinary Performance Award 1998 (Mallinckrodt, Inc.) and Technical Innovation Award 1995 (Mallinckrodt Medical, Inc.).