O'Brien and Oelze developing cancer-detecting ultrasound

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By Roxana Ryan and Brad Petersen, ECE Illinois
September 25, 2007

  • Prof. William D. O'Brien Jr. and Prof. Michael Oelze have been awarded a 5-year, $5.2 million Bioengineering Research Partnership from the NIH's National Cancer Institute.
  • The project, entitled "Quantitative Ultrasonic Imaging of the Breast," is designed to distinguish different types of cancer, such as benign tumors and cysts from malignant ones.
  • Oelze said he is excited about the research because ultrasound is safer, faster, less expensive, and more portable than current cancer detection techniques.

William D. O'Brien, Jr.
William D. O'Brien, Jr.

ECE Professor William D. O'Brien Jr. and Assistant Professor Michael L. Oelze, along with collaborators from Illinois and the University of Wisconsin, Madison, were awarded a 5-year, $5.2 million Bioengineering Research Partnership grant from the National Institutes of Health's National Cancer Institute for their project "Quantitative Ultrasonic Imaging of the Breast." The research seeks to discover new ways of detecting and diagnosing cancer using ultrasound technology.

Although ultrasound has been used to image the body for over 50 years, typical ultrasonic images are qualitative rather than quantitative. For the past few years, O'Brien and Oelze have been working to detect breast cancer using quantitative ultrasound imaging. "Our preliminary data indicate that it is feasible to detect and distinguish different types of cancer, such as benign tumors and cysts from malignant ones," said Oelze. "Our technique uses quantitative ultrasound to estimate properties of the microstructure of the tissue from the ultrasonic backscatter."

Oelze said he is excited about the research because ultrasound is safer, faster, less expensive, and more portable than current cancer detection techniques.

Michael L. Oelze
Michael L. Oelze

"We will be able to actually extract information about the underlying tissue microstructure so it will compliment or even replace techniques like mammography," Oelze said.

Another benefit of ultrasound is that it uses non-ionizing radiation, unlike mammography. Other methods such as Magnetic Resource Imaging (MRI) work well but are expensive and not as portable.

The ultrasound detection method also could help reduce the need for biopsy. "Our hope is that someday using our technique, a patient could come to the doctor with a suspicious lump and walk out the same day knowing it was benign without resorting to biopsy," Oelze explained. "The patient wouldn't have to wait for a pathologist to determine test results from biopsy, because the imaging technique yielded sufficient information to make the diagnosis in office. This is one hope that drives this research."

In addition to being faculty in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, O'Brien, the Donald Biggar Willett Professor in Engineering, and Oelze are affiliated with the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology and the Coordinated Science Lab.

Timothy J. Hall, a professor in the Department of Medical Physics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and O'Brien are the project's principal investigators. Co-investigators for this project from Illinois are James F. Zachary, pathobiology professor, and Douglas G. Simpson, professor and chair in the Department of Statistics. University of Wisconsin co-investigators are James A. Zagzebski, Ernest L. Madsen, and Tomy Varghese from the Department of Medical Physics; Gale A. Sisney, MD, and Elizabeth S. Burnside, MD, professors of radiology breast imaging; Frederick Kelcz, MD, associate professor of radiology; and Josephine M. Harter, MD, assistant professor of pathology.

Editor's note: media inquiries should be directed to Brad Petersen, Director of Communications, at bradp@illinois.edu or (217) 244-6376.

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