By: MARK GUARINO
Medical technology can spot disease, but often only when a patient already is in imminent danger. What if a simple handheld device could scan the body to detect disease much sooner? That's what Dr. Stephen Boppart at the University of Illinois is developing using light imagery. His work may help doctors uncover early signs of deadly maladies like cancer and even enable researchers to track how molecules and cells react to medication in real time.
“I like to think of these as optical biopsies,” he says. “We are essentially designing a new microscope to take to the patient.”
Boppart, who heads the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology in Urbana, has made optical imagery his life's work. When getting his doctorate in medical and electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the late 1990s—he earned his medical degree from Harvard in 2000—he became enchanted with optical imaging techniques that allowed doctors to look below delicate surfaces of the body like the retina.
Unlike MRIs, which rely on magnetics and ultrasounds that use sound waves, optical imaging manipulates light (which also travels in waves) to create high-resolution images that Boppart says will ultimately “give us new information about molecules” under the skin.
At the new GSK Center for Optical Molecular Imaging, a partnership with British pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline that was announced in December, Boppart and his research team will focus primarily on skin disorders. His team, a 10-person mixture of students and staff members, will publish some of the research to help drive the technology forward. For its part, GSK will use the collaboration to determine which medicines work best and do it faster and more efficiently than drug trials, which typically take years. (Boppart will not disclose the amount of GSK's investment but says the university will share in the multiyear effort.)
The private-public aspect of the partnership is mutually beneficial, says Melissa Skala, a biomedical engineer at Vanderbilt University in Nashville whose specialty is optical imaging. “What Stephen is doing is new and very exciting, and it could be potentially huge, not just for clinicians but also the drug companies,” she says. “It's good to see they are appreciating that.”
Growing up in exurban Harvard, Boppart, 47, got the invention bug from his father, an agricultural engineer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. They tinkered on engines together, which prepared him for academic research: “He instilled in me the spirit of innovation and curiosity and fixing things on a limited budget,” he says. That sense of discovery is instilled in his own children, a 14-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter, as well as his students.
“It's the people who are innovative in their spare time who are the ones that will get things to work,” he says. “One student fixes his own car and another builds catapults. They are solving technical problems on their own time. That, to me, is that spirit of innovation they have to nurture.”