Doctors, Engineers Team Up to Fight Cancer

in Uncategorized
September 22nd, 2012

$9 million NIH grant founds BU-based center

Catherine Klapperich, an ENG associate professor of biomedical engineering and of mechanical engineering and FTCC director, will lead BU’s effort to fight cancer by teaming doctors with engineers. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Catherine Klapperich, an ENG associate professor of biomedical engineering and of mechanical engineering and FTCC director, will lead BU’s effort to fight cancer by teaming doctors with engineers. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Imagine a world where a simple mouth swab could predict lung cancer, a blood test could warn of a recurrence of melanoma, and a rectal scan could tell if you would benefit from a colonoscopy.

That world is the vision of the Center for Future Technologies in Cancer Care (FTCC), founded here in July with help from a five-year, $9 million grant from theNational Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering(NIBIB) at the National Institutes of Health. The center will foster collaboration among doctors, engineers, and public health and business professionals at BU and elsewhere who hope to develop technology to diagnose, screen, and treat a variety of cancers faster, cheaper, and better than is done now.

BU is one of three recipients, with Harvard and Johns Hopkins University, of a U54 award, given by NIBIB’s Point-of-Care Technologies Research Network (POCTRN).

Catherine Klapperich, a College of Engineering associate professor of biomedical engineering and of mechanical engineering and the FTCC director, says this isn’t the first time that BU engineers and clinicians have collaborated to tackle major health problems. The FTCC effort is unique, however, in its focus on cancer care. The new center will draw expertise from programs like the W. H. Coulter Translational Partnership Program and the Boston University/Fraunhofer Alliance for Medical Devices, Instrumentation and Diagnostics and will try to develop and commercialize promising prototypes.

“Cathie understands that cancer is not a high- or middle-income country problem; it’s a global problem,” says Jonathon Simon, director of the Center for Global Health & Development and the School of Public Health Robert A. Knox Professor. “With the increasing longevity of populations in low- and middle-income countries and our ability to manage the infectious disease and maternal mortality burdens, there’s just a lot more cancer that comes about because of the age structure of populations, but also because the competing risks on what else is getting people have been diminished.”

The center’s first five seed projects focus on lung, colon, skin, and liver cancers. Avrum Spira (ENG’02), a School of Medicine professor of medicine, pathology, and bioinformatics and a pulmonologist at Boston Medical Center (BMC), has found a way to detect lung cancer at an earlier and therefore far more treatable stage than it is usually found, by studying changes in cells in the windpipes of smokers. With help from the FTCC, he hopes to develop a blood test or mouth or nose swab that could reveal a high risk of lung cancer.

Irving Bigio, an ENG professor of biomedical engineering and of electrical and computer engineering, and Satish Singh, a MED assistant professor of medicine and a BMC gastroenterologist, have teamed up to develop a prescreening tool for colon cancer, the second leading cause of death by cancer in the United States.

Doctors recommend that everyone age 50 and over have a colonoscopy at least once every 10 years, yet compliance is low, Bigio and Singh say, because people dislike the invasive nature of the procedure. Singh notes that only half of those people who undergo a colonoscopy actually have intestinal polyps, and half of those have precancerous polyps. With this in mind, Bigio developed a fiber-optic probe that uses light and a spectrometer to detect potentially cancerous polyps, and thus signal a real need for a colonoscopy. FTCC funding will advance their research, and if it’s successful, help develop a prototype that is disposable and affordable.

Klapperich herself is working with San Francisco–based Wave 80 Biosciences to develop a blood test to detect liver cancer. The research