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Cancer Detection: USU Physicist Says It's Rocket Science

Thursday, Mar. 04, 2010

USU physicist Tim Doyle

In a collaborative research project with the Huntsman Cancer Institute, USU physicist Tim Doyle is using computer simulations to test ultrasonic detection of microscopic cancer cells.

A critical challenge facing surgeons as they cut out malignant tumors is: how far should they go? That is, are they taking a sufficient margin of healthy tissue surrounding the offending disease to ensure that no cancer is left behind? The decision, made in the exigency of the operating room, could determine whether a patient has to face subsequent surgery and debilitating treatment or live with the consequences of an unnecessarily aggressive excision.
With research colleagues at Salt Lake City’s Huntsman Cancer Institute and USU’s Department of Biological Engineering, Utah State University physicist Tim Doyle is exploring the use of ultrasound to scan tissue for microscopic cancer cells. The research, funded by the National Institutes of Health, could provide doctors with a tool to quickly detect cancerous tissue during surgery and know when they’ve removed a safe, necessary margin.
Doyle, a research associate professor in USU’s Department of Physics, began researching the idea with seed funds from a 2005-06 USU Community/University Research Initiative (CURI) grant. During his previous employment with ATK Thiokol, Doyle used ultrasound to detect tiny cracks in solid rocket fuel and rocket motors. He reasoned that similar technology could be used to instantly ferret out microscopic malignancies in human tissue.
“Solid rocket propellant is a rubbery, particle-filled composite,” he says. “Human tissue is also made up of millions of tiny particles — cells within layers of tissue. Cancer changes tissue structure at the microscopic level so I thought, ‘Aha,’ we can see these changes with ultrasound.”
Using computer simulation technology, Doyle has developed models of ducts in breast tissue and, using these simulations, is testing the use of ultrasound waves to distinguish microscopic cancer cells from healthy cells. To refine the models, simulation results are being compared with ultrasonic measurements of tissue cultures in the laboratory of BIE Department co-investigator Soonjo Kwon. Within a year, Doyle and colleague Leigh Neumayer, an HCI oncologist, plan to test the ultrasound device on specimens removed from patients. If successful, they hope to move on to clinical trials with humans within three years.
“My research here at USU is applicable to so many things and it feels good to be doing something meaningful,” says Doyle, whose wife is a breast cancer survivor. “I was doing rocket science and now, I’m breaking into the medical field.”
In time, Doyle believes that the ultrasound technology could be used to develop a pen-like device to instantly detect skin cancers and other malignancies.
Related links:
Contact: Tim Doyle, 435-797-8081,
Writer: Mary-Ann Muffoletto, 435-797-3517,

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