Personalizing Cancer Treatment


Wearable Monitor Could Optimize Care

By Mark Dwortzan

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A prototype digital diffuse optical spectroscopy system the Roblyer Lab plans to test in the clinic during the next several years (Photos by Connor Gleason)

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Assistant Professor Darren Roblyer (BME)

When it comes to cancer drugs, one size does not fit all. Today, selecting the optimal drug or drug combination for a particular cancer patient is done largely by trial and error, but an emerging approach called personalized cancer therapytakes the guesswork out of the process by performing genetic and other tests on a sample of the patient’s tumor. Unique information derived from the sample helps researchers and oncologists to pinpoint the most effective drugs.

While this may work well at the start of treatment, tumors evolve and can become resistant to drugs as therapy progresses. Now Darren Roblyer, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at the College of Engineering, has invented a new device that promises to ensure that patients receive drugs that effectively treat their tumors throughout the course of treatment. The device—a noninvasive, wearable imaging pad that displays continuous optical measurements during chemotherapy infusions and throughout therapy—is designed to optimize drug selection in real time, and thus reduce drug resistance and minimize side effects.

Recognizing the potential of this new technology to improve cancer cure and survival rates, theAmerican Cancer Society (ACS) has granted Roblyer a Research Scholar Award of $776,000 over the next four years.

“I was extremely pleased and humbled to be among the few early-career researchers that the ACS chose to support this cycle,” said Roblyer. “This award is incredibly important to me and our lab since it represents a strong confirmation that our research and societal impact goals are considered priorities by the ACS and their top scientists.”

The award will allow Roblyer and his research group to design, fabricate and test new optical instruments and conduct preclinical studies—in consultation with Boston University Professor David Waxman (Biology, Bioinformatics, MED) to better understand how optics can guide therapy. It will also fund a clinical study of breast cancer patients that they will conduct with collaborators at the Boston Medical Center led by Rita Blanchard, M.D., an oncologist and associate professor in the Department of Hematology and Medical Oncology.

Unlike most proposed methods for personalized cancer treatment, Roblyer’s can quickly determine tumor response to chemotherapy and pinpoint changes in tumor biology and drug resistance as treatment progresses. The technology he’s developing, known as diffuse optical spectroscopy (DOS), can detect rapid changes in tumor blood supply and oxygen content in breast tumors using patient-safe, infrared light. Using these optical markers, which indicate how well the drugs are doing their job, DOS can continuously monitor patients’ therapy response and modify treatments as soon as therapy begins to lose its effectiveness.

“I anticipate the research we will conduct over the next four years with the support of the ACS will be key in establishing our group as a leader in translational optics for oncology,” said Roblyer. “Further down the road, we hope our technologies will become part of the clinical standard of care to assist physicians in dynamically adjusting and improving cancer treatments and ultimately improving patient outcomes.”

Darren Roblyer Ph.D., was supported by a Research Scholar Grant, RSG-14-015-01-CCE from the American Cancer Society.