Cancer-Detection Device Undergoes Testing

HAMPTON - A Hampton University nuclear physicist is testing a machine that will allow doctors to find smaller cancerous lesions, earlier.

"It doesn't mean it's a cure," said Cynthia Keppel, Ph.D., an assistant professor of physics at Hampton University as well as a staff scientist at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility's Applied Research Center in Newport News. She said that with cases of melanoma, it is more of a situation of keeping the lesions at bay.

"It does have the potential to extend life. Can it save lives? We don't know yet," Keppel said. She developed the machine with Stan Majewski, Ph.D., group leader of detector systems at Jefferson Lab.

The surgical instrument they developed is called an intraoperative beta probe and is only a few inches long. It is inserted into an incision near the site of the cancer lesion. A sugar substance injected into the blood adheres to cancerous cells, emitting radiation. The probe then detects the radiation so that surgeons can remove it.

In the past, cancerous lesions had to be at least two centimeters to detect.

The machine, if medical tests prove it successful, could detect lesions as small as one centimeter.

This early detection would allow physicians to remove the lesions sooner, improving the chances for recovery for the patient.

The idea for the machine developed at Jefferson Lab's medical instrumentation group, while Keppel worked late nights doing research.

The initial tests were conducted at Duke University, which is one of the few university hospitals that has an expensive, $5 million PET, or positron emission tomography machine, to detect melanoma.

In the study, a young man, diagnosed with melanoma, was given a year to live. However, there was no way to locate the tiny lesions, even with the PET machine.

"There was no way to get it. It was too small to feel it," Keppel said.

But the beta probe device found the lesions so that they could be surgically removed.

The beta probe is one of many medical innovations coming out of Jefferson Lab, though Keppel stresses she is not starting a spinoff company.

Unlike the company Dilon Technologies, which is also headquartered at Jefferson Lab and involved in developing cancer-detecting technology, Keppel says that she does not intend to start a company to sell the product. Keppel, instead, will license the product, a patent for which she submitted six months ago, so that she can do more research with Jefferson Lab.

Patented Dec. 11 is what she calls her "holy grail," an invention that will aid surgeons. The invention is a common cart, with common electronics, with a family of different surgical instruments, all connected.

To accomplish the research, Keppel is opening a lab at the center.

Money for the research has been provided by a three-year, $130,247 grant from the National Science Foundation's Major Research Instrumentation Program and another grant from the NSF through the Hampton University Nuclear High Energy Physics Research Center.

Locally, the beta probe device is beginning testing at Riverside Hospital, supervised by Dr. Richard Hofer, of Oyster Point Surgical Associates.