Making Big Advances in Diagnosing Cancer

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An Austrian cancer research institute has invited a UVU research team to further develop their work on a method for identifying cancerous tissue.

Dr. Timothy Doyle and a team of physics students are currently researching a new method of detecting cancer.

Using a high-frequency ultrasound system, Doyle is leading research into technology that may aid the process of identifying and removing cancer.

One goal for the research is to more efficiently detect if cancer is present in specimens of tissue before it’s removed for biopsy as well as allow for a more precise removal of dangerous cells.

During surgery for the removal of breast cancer after the removal of the cancerous tumor, margins of skin near the tumor are removed as well and checked for the presence of cancer.  This is done to make sure all of the cancer has been completely removed.

“When women under go breast-conservation surgery,” Doyle said, “if it turns out there is cancer found close to the edge of the incision from where the tumor was removed, surgeons have to perform another surgery on the patient.  This happens to a fairly [high] percentage of women.”

The cancer diagnostic research Doyle is heading is seeking to resolve this issue.

“We are trying to come up with a real-time method for the surgeon to use in the operating room to make sure he or she has removed all cancer during surgery,” Doyle said.

Currently, Doyle and his team of students are using prototype equipment for determining the state of removed tissue. Doyle is working towards developing an efficient method of identifying the state of removed tissue on the spot for surgeons to know whether the tissue specimen is cancerous or normal.

“I feel that this research has enormous potential to the change diagnostic and detection ability of breast cancer,” Caitlin Carter, a student-research leader on this project, said. “I really enjoy being a part of that and feeling that the work I am doing will make a difference in the medical field.“

Doyle’s method would be able to aid in the removal of any type of soft tissue cancer including colon and prostate cancer.

Doyle and some of the students working on this research will visit the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Cancer Research in Vienna in March to work with researchers there.

The LBI-CR is conducting research on tissue regeneration.  For their research they are looking for methods to measure the regrowth of blood vessels.  This is a process known as vascularization.

“The goal of the trip is to see how vascularization effects the ultrasound signal,” Andrew Chappell, a student-research leader on this project, said. “If we can come up with a practical method for testing an increase or decrease in vascularization in treated tissue.”

Dr. Cyrill Slezak, assistant professor of physics, has a brother who works at the LBI-CR.  Slezak felt the progress Doyle was making on his research at UVU would be able to aid LBI-CR in their methods of measuring vascularization.

“There is an interesting link between vascularization and tumors,” Doyle said. “Cancerous tumors need blood supply. Since tumors grow fast they need lots of blood so they grow lots of blood vessels.  One of the ways to treat tumors is to give them an anti-angiogenesis drug.  It prevents the growth of new blood vessels.  We compared normal tumors with treated tumors and noticed a big difference.  We sent out results to Vienna and they told us they wanted us to come.”

Doyle currently has a team of 18 students who are assisting in this research.

“I was in Dr. Doyle’s classes.  He talked about the research in class and it sounded like real breakthrough technology,” Chappell said. “Like most people, cancer has affected my life in one way or another and I saw what Dr. Doyle was doing as a way to get involved in helping find solutions to fighting cancer”

These students are spending time at the Huntsman Cancer Institute, contrasting samples of healthy tissue with samples of tissue found in breast cancer.

“By comparing different tissues we’re trying to understand more about the signals we’re getting,” Doyle said. “Verify what we’re getting.  We’re trying to understand the science behind it.”

Many of the students working on this research have presented their findings to research conferences.  Some students will be presenting their findings to the upcoming Utah Conference on Undergraduate Research later this month.

UVU is working closely with Doyle to ensure protection of ideas and new technology developed from his efforts and has supported the research by assisting in funding.

“UVU has been very active in funding this research as well as supporting applications for outside funding as well,” said Kent Millington, director of UVU technology and commercialization center.  “UVU funding for this technology is about $100K.  In addition, we got a State of Utah grant of $40K and have received about $80K from private foundations who are very supportive of the research.”