The University of Texas at Austin

One Researcher is Beating Breast Cancer's Odds

Dr. John Zhang in his lab

Dr. Zhang explains his microchip technology in his lab. Click image to enlarge.

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.

Currently, 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.

image from a microchip-enabled confocal imaging device

Dr. Zhang's microchip-enabled handheld technology acts like
a GPS device for cancer surgeons, producing real-time pathology
images of surface tissue.

"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."