A Leap Forward in Lung Imaging

Hadi Nia earns a Beckman award

By Patrick L. Kennedy

More than 230,000 Americans contracted lung cancer last year, and for many it was a death sentence—more than half of lung cancer victims die within a year of diagnosis. And yet, the lung is something of a black box, says Assistant Professor Hadi Nia (BME, MSE). The existing ways to study it have unfortunate flaws.

Hadi Nia (BME)

“With CT or MRI, you can image the entire lung, but the resolution is poor—you can’t see the air sacs and capillaries that are affected in early stages of tumor development,” explains Nia. “With histology, the resolution is high, but it’s a snapshot—you can’t see the dynamics of the fluids involved in respiration and circulation.”

That’s why the Beckman Foundation has named Nia a 2022 Beckman Young Investigator: The award of $600,000 over four years will help Nia and colleagues pioneer the next generation of lung imaging technology.

Key to several vital functions, the lung is one of the most complex and mechanically active organs, as it expands and extracts while processing air and blood.

“If you want to see the air sacs, capillaries, and cells in action, you need optical microscopy,” Nia says. “But the ribcage is blocking the optic.” The solution Nia has devised is a system for ex vivo studies with a ventilator and perfusion pump to keep the lung functioning and, crucially, a see-through container. Nia has termed it a “crystal ribcage,” for the clarity it provides.

“We’ve designed our own ribcage, with the similar geometry and properties of an actual ribcage, but this one is transparent,” says Nia. His team is also developing a staging area that will allow the lung, curved as it is, to be examined from any angle by either an upright or inverted microscope.

“We’ve started from scratch on almost everything,” Nia says.

The Beckman Foundation, which was founded by scientific instrument pioneer Arnold O. Beckman, gave Nia the award based on his early success in this line of research with animal models. By the end of the grant term, Nia’s goal is to scale up his “LungEx” technology to study human lungs. The particular aim of the grant is to research primary lung cancer, but the technology might be used to study any number of pulmonary diseases, from fibrosis to COVID-19.

Nia’s collaborators on the project include Professor Bela Suki (BME), as well as School of Medicine faculty Giovanni Ligresti, Katrina Traber, and Sarah Mazzilli, and Joseph Mizgerd, who have provided expertise on pulmonary diseases.

Nia credits the Neurophotonics Center with providing imaging equipment and expertise, and Suki with getting him interested in the lung. “I’d studied many tumor types—everything except lung,” Nia says. “Then I came to BU, and I saw that the lung was such an interesting organ, with so many open questions.”


Lung image by Robina Weermeijer