Jefferson Lab
On Target (September 1998)
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    Building a better probe
    JLab technology improves medical science

    by Jim Schultz

    First, Do No Harm: This time-honored physician's motto is put to the test when cancer is involved. Although enormous strides have been made in non-invasive diagnostic medicine-such as the modern-day magnetic resonance imagers (MRIs) and nuclear medicine scanners that can pinpoint disease and other physical malfunctions-surgery is still often required to confirm the presence and extent of cancerous tumors. A team of researchers at Jefferson Laboratory hopes to tilt the odds in favor of a less physically traumatic procedure; so doing, they may vastly improve the prospects for more effective treatment of cancers of the breast, thyroid and prostate.

    Five members of the Lab's Detector Group are collaborating with colleagues from the Physics Fast Electronics Group, Hampton University, the University of West Virginia Medical Center, East Carolina University Medical Center and the Duke University Medical Center on a new project. The Intra-Operative Probe Project, or IPP is underwritten by DOE and a grant from the National Science Foundation and the Nuclear and High-Energy Physics Research Center at Hampton University. The effort, begun in earnest once funding was received this past August, is based on technology derived from the sophisticated detector equipment found within the Laboratory's experimental halls.

    "Probes exist. We're not the first," says Stan Majewski, head of the Lab's Detector Group and co-principal investigator for the IPP. "But we believe we can improve on existing technology. One way is to introduce imaging probes."

    Other surgical probes tend to simply identify the presence of malignancy. Finding cancer isn't terribly difficult; cancer cells are ravenous for energy to support rapid growth. Typically, radioactive tracers are added to pharmaceutical solutions that are injected into patients before testing begins. As the radiopharmaceutical (tracer material) rapidly migrates to the diseased sites, detectors-surgically inserted into the body and maneuvered to suspect areas-are able to generally point out areas of cancer.

    The Laboratory's probe is expected to be substantially more sensitive, with the added advantage of being able to paint a visually detailed picture of tumor sites. "It's like the guy on the beach with a metal detector," explains Drew Weisenberger, staff scientist with the Detector Group and co-investigator on the IPP. "A lot of these [detectors] just beep when you find something. Our way, you can look and actually see what’s there."

    Over the next several months, the first intra-operative probe prototype will be developed in concert with Duke University Medical School. Although the IPP team is still finalizing the ultimate design, the probe (which could assume a final form as small as a pencil or as large as a cup) will likely be attached to some sort of moveable gantry, placed on a mobile cart and connected to an array of electronics gear, including a laptop computer. It is planned that experienced surgeons will test and evaluate various prototype configurations at hospitals in Hampton and Newport News.

    In order to make the probe as widely available as possible, the IPP team hopes to produce a device that in its least expensive incarnation would cost no more than $25,000. Other, more upscale versions could run as high as $50,000.

    Still to be determined is the best route to commercialization, including possible collaboration with Dilon Technologies Inc., a company in residence at the nearby Applied Research Center.

    The IPP group will likely seek an industrial partner to actually bring their probe product to market. "In terms of need, technology transfer and the Laboratory's support for our work, this is the best time for this kind of project. I can't imagine better conditions," Majewski contends, "For us as individual scientists it was an obvious step in nuclear medicine. We decided that we as individuals could make a contribution..."

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