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Photonics Symposium Shines Spotlight on Collaborative Research

Offering collaborations and seed funding, MEDx has helped Duke biophotonics researchers create some exciting new connections to further their work

Medical advances rarely result from one scientist working in isolation. Instead, discoveries occur because of collaborative efforts between engineers and physicians, with each team member bringing unique experience and ideas to the development process. With a focus on “Biophotonics for the Medicine of the Future,” the 2017 Fitzpatrick Institute for Photonics (FIP) Symposium highlighted some shining successes from Pratt School of Engineering and School of Medicine teams, including the development of a transformative imaging tool for eye examination and surgery and a novel portable colposcope for cervical cancer screening.  (Read more about the 2017 FIP Symposium)

But just how do such successes get their start? A special session at the symposium highlighted how some Duke engineers are finding inspiration for new research directions with medical school colleagues through the schools’ joint Duke MEDx initiative. Offering both informal opportunities to meet and chat with potential collaborators and seed funding to kick-start new projects, MEDx has helped Duke biophotonics researchers create some exciting new connections to further their work.

Feedback for Cancer Screening Devices and Diagnostic Tools

Jenna Mueller, a postdoctoral associate in Professor Nimmi Ramanujam’s Tissue Optical Spectroscopy Laboratory, discussed the development of a portable cervical cancer screening device, called the Pocket colposcope. Mueller emphasized the importance of feedback from the physicians who would ultimately use the diagnostic tool, which has allowed the team to improve the design with each iteration. Team leaders have organized a MEDx-sponsored colloquium series to bring engineers and physicians together to discuss challenges in cancer screening and prevention in primary care, and are now working on a cross-school collaboration funded by a collaborative seed grant to develop an algorithm to automate cervical cancer screening.

Connecting Non-Invasive Tools and Clinical Studies  

Adam Wax, a professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, elaborated on his work with Dr. Katherine Garman and her team at the Duke Cancer Institute. The researchers, who connected through MEDx, are investigating how devices using low-coherence interferometry to detect scattered light through sub-surface tissue samples can potentially act as non-invasive screening tools for esophageal cancers. “Katie is examining the basic origins of these precancerous conditions, and we have a way of detecting their presence in vivo,” Wax said. “It’s exciting to work with her and connect basic science back to the clinical studies. We hope we may be able to find the biomarkers that will help identify which people with Barrett’s esophagus will progress to cancer.”

Designing Less-Invasive Testing for Gastroesophageal Diseases 

MEMS Chair Ken Gall fields questions for the MEDx panelXiling Shen, an associate professor in biomedical engineering, spoke about his burgeoning work with BME’s Junjie Yao and Duke Health clinicians to develop improved, less-invasive testing for gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and colonoscopies.  Shen discussed how conversations with physicians Amit Patel and David Lehman at a MEDx-sponsored dinner colloquium helped jumpstart ideas about combining wireless pH monitoring with esophageal impedance pH studies into a single tool to aid doctors in their diagnoses of GERD.  The envisioned device would be less restricting for patients while enabling longer-term monitoring to improve the accuracy of screening results.

Detecting DNA Using Non-Invasive Cancer Diagnostic Tests

Collaborators Matthew Kirley, a research scientist in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE), and Dr. Steven Brousell, a surgery resident in the Division of Urology, presented their vision for a urine-based diagnostic test to screen for known genetic anomalies in specific cancers. Working with ECE Professor Jeff Glass and urologist Dr. Brant Inman, the team hopes to translate electrochemical detection of DNA into tool to replace invasive cystoscopy for cancer screening.

Using Ultrasound to Boost Cancer Treatment

Pei Zhong, the Anderson-Rupp Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science, discussed his work with Dr. Herbert Kim Lyerly and team in the Department of Surgery to study whether high intensity focused ultrasound (HIFU) can boost the effectiveness of immunotherapy for breast and prostate cancers.  With support from a MEDx pilot project grant, the team is working to see if HIFU, a non-invasive technique for burning away or mechanically lysing tissue within the body, can affect molecular pathways that regulate cancer immune response, providing a one-two punch when combined with immunotherapy drugs.  “We’ll be working together to identify the most effective approach to combine the therapies for maximum antitumor effect,” said Zhong. “The project has great potential.”

After the presentations, the researchers held a panel discussion where they explained how MEDx has served as a bridge between engineering and medicine, allowing a greater exchange of ideas between different scientific fields.

“As an engineer, it seems like all we ever do is work in the lab to solve problems, and clinicians find problems every day,” said Shen. “MEDx highlights the value of bringing people from different areas together to find solutions, and it’s amazing what has come out of that conversation.”