The University of Texas at Austin
  • Conquering breast cancer

    By Marjorie Smith, Cockrell School of Engineering
    Published: June 28, 2011
    Conquering
    Dr. Zhang explains his microchip technology in his lab.

    This story originally appeared on the Cockrell School of Engineering Web site.

    Breast cancer affects nearly one out of eight American women during their lifetime. Of those women, around 40 percent undergo more than one surgery to remove malignant breast tissue.

    Dr. John Zhang wants to change these odds — and his solution includes biopsy-free examinations and real-time pathology imaging during surgery.

    “Cancer is the top disease that is killing people,” said Zhang, a professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the Cockrell School. “And right now, we know biopsy is the standard. Doctors are removing tumors in the breast without having anything to tell them if the whole tumor has been removed … patients wait through a 24-hour time cycle to learn whether the cancer tumor is still there.”

    Zhang’s new technology eliminates the wait.

    He has developed a new technology that acts like a GPS device for cancer surgeons. The instrument guides doctors during surgery, enabling them to see in real time whether all of the cancerous tissue has been removed.

    According to Zhang, the key innovation behind the technology is a micro-electro-mechanical system (MEMS) laser scanner. This handheld device — which uses a microchip that was created in his lab — generates real-time 3-D images of surface cell tissue, or more technically, ‘confocal images of epithelial tissue.’

    While confocal imaging has been around for a few decades, miniaturized confocal imaging devices — such as the handheld one Zhang has developed with his laser microchip technology — are something new.

    The main method to generate confocal images is to use a large-scale microscope that costs more than $1 million and requires a biopsy from the patient.

    In contrast, Zhang’s technology “brings the microscope to the patient, not the tissue to the microscope.”

    “Fundamentally, this chip would enable a new platform that integrates very small and cost effective components replacing the large device,” he said.

    Zhang started researching real-time imaging devices for early cancer detection in 2006, and has continued to receive funding from the National Science Foundation, National Institute of Health (NIH), National Instruments and others.

    “I think that it’s really important for the technologies developed at top engineering schools to make an impact on society,” he said. “We are using federal support and tax dollars, so we should work very hard to improve the quality of life. I really want to bring research to society.”

    Recently, Zhang received nearly $1 million from NIH’s National Cancer Institute to fund his research initiatives over the next three years. Collaborators include Dr. Kostia Sokolov, adjunct associate professor of biomedical engineering, and Drs. Eugene Frenkel and Jonathan Uhr, professors of internal medicine and radiology at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.

    The team also includes biomedical engineering graduate student Youmin Wang and undergraduate student Milan Raj.

    “We have very talented students and they want to solve societal problems and conquer cancer,” Zhang said. “We do this discovery every day in the lab and that is part of the learning and the education — the knowledge moving forward.”

    This forward momentum inspired Zhang to license his microchip technology with the university’s Office of Technology Commercialization, and create a spin-off company called NanoLite Systems Inc. The company was co-founded with Ting Shen who received her Ph.D. from Stanford University and later worked for McKinsey & Co. and Cisco Systems, but left to become CEO of NanoLite.

    “If we can take this [technology] to market and reduce that redo rate for cancer surgery by just a few percent, we are moving the needle in a lot of people’s lives,” Shen said.

    Shen was immediately inspired by Zhang’s research and the impact it could have on breast cancer detection, noting she has had close friends and family diagnosed with cancer.

    “I’ve heard real life stories from patients — they anxiously await the call from the doctor to see if they are cancer free now. It’s emotionally and physically painful,” she said. “If we have the technology to develop cancer imaging devices that enable doctors to see better — to see cancer in real time during surgery — then they can remove the cancer much better.”

    NanoLite Systems is currently working with the Austin Technology Incubator to help commercialize the technology and propel the company’s success. Shen recently presented the business plan at the Texas Venture Labs Expo during Venture Week.

    “This technology started here at UT Austin and we will contribute to the vision to conquer cancer, in Texas [and] in Austin,” Zhang said. “If we aren’t doing it here, somewhere else will.”

    • Quote 2
      Jack said on Sept. 23, 2011 at 9:25 a.m.
      People like Dr. Zhang need and deserve all the funding they can get. $1 million dollars is nice but not enough.Breast cancer is still touching many lives and early detection & removal increases survival chances. Dr. Zhangs research and technology may help save many lives.
    • Quote 2
      Tom said on Sept. 5, 2011 at 10:27 p.m.
      Awesome. Hope this works. Both my mother and my wife are survivors of this disease.
    • Quote 2
      BreastCancer said on Aug. 23, 2011 at 7:21 p.m.
      wow, hope this really does help, I have had family member who lost one breast due to this illness, so I know the feeling women goes through. Thank you Dr.Zhang
    • Quote 2
      Jim Gilbert said on July 11, 2011 at 1:27 p.m.
      Govenor Perry has suggested the elimination of research faculty and universities from the Texas higher educational system. This, and other such cost effective and life saving technologies, should serve as more than ample evidence for the contination and expansion of reseach in our universities.
    • Quote 2
      Barbara May-Clower said on July 10, 2011 at 4:56 p.m.
      I am a one year survivor of breast cancer. I had a lumpectomoy, with a small 5mm tumor. Most all of the women I know that have had breast cancer are having it return in their breast or other parts of the body. Do I have a chance with your new advances to see if it is still in my body? Anywhere?
    • Quote 2
      Bob Peterson said on July 9, 2011 at 7:21 a.m.
      UT medicine and engineering combining their talents is truly changing the world. These are the times when more research dollars are needed so these advances can continue. Personally, I relate to this through a recent surgery experience using Mohs technology,which is a great advancement, too. During that four hour session it took five visits to the surgery site and after the fifth the margins were clear with no lengthy overnight waiting for results requiring additional surgery. Dr. Zhang's technology is in real time - an even greater advancement for the patient and the doctor. Thank you Dr. Zhang and UT! PS: Forwarding this article to your state representatives may increase the odds for fewer cuts in research dollars.
    • Quote 2
      DN said on July 8, 2011 at 2:32 p.m.
      As a caregiver to a cancer warrior, I appreciate Dr. Zhang and his staff's dedication. To all who read this, imagine what could be accomplished if Dr. Zhang's grant was $2 million, or even $10 million, instead of 1 million, or why he should have to apply for a "grant" in the first place. Does the DoD have to write proposals for grants? Remember this the next time you vote, and research the candidates that frivolously spend your tax dollars. Kudos to Dr. Zhang and all in the race for a cure!
    • Quote 2
      Elyn Jacobs said on July 8, 2011 at 8:32 a.m.
      Clear margins are all too often a problem, sadly many have multiple lumpectomies and then still require a mast....so this is exciting news!
    • Quote 2
      Delmar E Burkett said on July 7, 2011 at 1:58 p.m.
      People who want a non-invasive way to treat breast cancer might want to investigate Proton Therapy that is available at M. D. Anderson in Houston. The following youtube discusses non-invasive Proton treatment for early stage breast cancer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gu2XDjSDdDA
    • Quote 2
      Cherie B Mathews said on July 7, 2011 at 1:53 p.m.
      This is amazing news, I have a friend with 21,000 breast cancer followers if you need some options about current treatment vs your technology please let me know and I will ask if they would be willing to help. Cherie B Mathews Founder & CEO healincomfort.com Austin, Texas
    • Quote 2
      Lyndie Blevins said on July 7, 2011 at 10:00 a.m.
      How encouraging are these words! As a breast cancer survivor who had 2 lumpectomies, being able to know at surgery time if all the diseased cells is incredible. In 2002, my surgeon had everything checked during the first surgery and felt good about his work. He was more upset than I was when we had to go back the next week and take out more tissue. Fortunately, I was strong enough to face 2 surgeries, but not every one is. However, I did have to face 6 chemo treatments and radiation. Maybe this information will allow more specific remedies in the future. Hook'em Horns!
    • Quote 2
      Maria Aleman said on July 7, 2011 at 9:50 a.m.
      Thank you and everyone working with you for this breakthrough Dr. Zhang. I'm proud of you and know this is the way of the future. Cancer Survivor
    • Quote 2
      Paige Curran said on July 7, 2011 at 8:11 a.m.
      Very exciting and very much needed. Thank you for focusing on a disease that impacts so many lives. Keep us posted!
    • Quote 2
      Trish said on July 7, 2011 at 7:46 a.m.
      How do we become a part of the research for this? I had breast cancer with lumpectomy and radiaiton 7 yrs ago. Is it back?
    • Quote 2
      Delmar E Burkett said on July 7, 2011 at 7:14 a.m.
      I have long beleived that Proton Therapy is a great way to treat prostate cancer that has not moved outside the prostate and would be my first choice. The study below sounds promising for breast cancer. You may know that M.D. Anderson has a relatively new multi-million Dollar facility. If my wife develops breast cancer, she will certainly investigate the possibility of non-invasive proton radiation. Study: Clinical Trial at Loma Linda University Medical Center for New Breast Cancer Treatment Shows Excellent Disease Control and Virtually No Side Effects
    • Quote 2
      Arlene Virga said on July 7, 2011 at 6:56 a.m.
      I am a 11 year breast cancer survivor. After my diagnosis I underwent many operations. The ones that irritated me the most was when the doctor came back and said, more than once, "we do not have clear margins." Your research and breakthroughs will help countless cancer patients. Thank you Dr. Zhang and the many who have come before you. Cancer research and new methods of healing are helping millions to achieve the longevity I am enjoying.
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