The Department of Defense (DOD) has named Rice University the recipient of a $3 million award for a five-year program to develop miniaturized molecular imaging technologies for screening, diagnosis, and monitoring of breast cancer.
The program, which will be conducted in collaboration with The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, calls for the development of microendoscope and needle-compatible fiber optic systems that doctors can use for a variety of diagnostic and therapeutic breast cancer imaging needs, ranging from early detection to guiding surgery to monitoring the efficacy of radiation therapy and targeted drug treatments.
The program's principal investigator, Rice bioengineer Rebekah Drezek, is one of three U.S. scientists chosen by the DOD for this year's Era of Hope Scholar Award, which is given annually by the DOD's Congressionally Directed Breast Cancer Research Program (BCRP).
The award recognizes "exceptionally talented, early-career scientists who have demonstrated through their extraordinary creativity, vision and productivity that they are the best and brightest in their fields."
Drezek, associate professor in both bioengineering and in electrical and computer engineering, was selected for her translational research developing miniaturized photonics-based molecular imaging technologies for screening, diagnosis, and monitoring of breast cancer. She is the first Rice faculty member to receive the Era of Hope Scholar Award and is the only principal investigator chosen this year that is not at a medical institution.
"Medical imaging plays a critical role in all aspects of breast cancer care," Drezek said. "From initial screening and diagnosis to guiding and monitoring therapeutic interventions, doctors use a variety of imaging technologies like x-rays, ultrasound and magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI. But all of these technologies provide low-resolution, non-specific anatomic images of tissue."
Research in Drezek's lab takes a different approach to clinical breast cancer imaging, focusing on the development of inexpensive, portable photonic-based imaging tools that provide high-resolution in situ imaging of the molecular hallmarks of breast cancer.
"In current practice, doctors need to biopsy a tumor in order to conduct the chemical tests that find the molecular signatures of different types of cancer," Drezek said. "There is a tremendous need for novel technologies that can detect biomarkers without tissue removal."
Drezek said most optical imaging research to date has focused on screening, but the dramatic expansion of new, targeted cancer therapies has created a substantial need for imaging tools that can monitor the efficacy of molecular-targeted therapeutics. Drezek's research group uses an interdisciplinary bench-to-bedside approach to develop imaging tools that ultimately can be used to monitor therapies including chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and surgery. Kuan Yu, assistant professor of radiation oncology, will lead the portion of the research conducted at M. D. Anderson.
"By combining our lab's expertise with that of our clinical partners at M. D. Anderson, we hope to take advantage of parallel advances in micro-optics, nanoscale imaging agents, and breast cancer biomarker identification to enable a completely different approach to molecular imaging of breast cancer than was possible just a few years ago," Drezek said. "More importantly, we want to have the clinical partners in place to help us continually adjust our path forward so that we are always directing our efforts towards those areas of medical need where we will be able to make most direct and significant impact on patient care."