Cynthia Keppel, a professor at Hampton University and a research scientist with Jefferson Lab, has been named the director of Hampton University's new Center for Advanced Medical Instrumentation.
Interest in the recently formed research center is keen as work is already underway to develop an array of portable, hand-held, non-invasive, medical diagnostic devices.
The idea for creating the Center for Advanced Medical Instrumentation — known more commonly by its acronym "CAMI" — was born in the mid-1990s from informal discussions between Keppel and Jefferson Lab's Detector Group leader, Stan Majewski.
Preparation of the site for the new CAMI research facility on Hampton University's campus is underway. An old building has been removed and ground work and basic infrastructure like plumbing is being laid for the new facility. The formal groundbreaking for the facility should take place later this summer. When complete in early 2004, the Center will enclose 12,000 square feet in two stories, housing primarily research labs and classrooms, but also some office space. Eventually, outpatient areas may be added. Research and development work is currently taking place in laboratory space in the City of Newport News Applied Research Center, which is adjacent to the Jefferson Lab campus.
Collaborations with Jefferson Lab scientists, specifically Stan Majewski, have led to the development of compact gamma cameras — adaptations of the sensitive gear used in the Lab's experimental halls to detect subatomic particles that can also be used to identify cancerous breast lesions that traditional mammograms have trouble differentiating from healthy breast tissue.
The CAMI/JLab partnership has also worked on intraoperative surgical probes that could be used during melanoma surgery, as well as a small, stereotactic breast imager that can work in conjunction with mammograms to improve the identification of suspicious lesions prior to biopsy. That device is currently being evaluated in clinical trials and thus far, based on confirming biopsies, has demonstrated a high success rate in pinpointing what is benign and what is malignant.
The devices rely on injectable solutions of radiopharmaceuticals, which are drugs that are labeled with radioactive isotopes. As the solution circulates throughout the body, it tends to accumulate in malignant cells. The congregated radiopharmaceuticals emit gamma rays, which are sensed as light by the devices and then converted into electronic signals that can be rendered as a visible image.
"What we will be looking to do is develop minimally invasive instrumentation," Keppel says. "We want to be able to locate and diagnose cancers more effectively. Everything coming out of the Center, at least in the immediate future, will be focused on finding better ways to locate or image those radiopharmaceuticals."
Eastern Virginia Medical School (EVMS) in Norfolk will be joining with Hampton University's CAMI to establish a graduate program in medical physics. It will be the first such program in Virginia, and the first in the country at a historically black college. Any devices resulting from the collaboration will be evaluated both nationally and in clinical programs conducted at Tidewater-area hospitals.
Keppel is in the process of writing proposals that would fund Center personnel in medical physics, engineering and applied technology. In addition to five students and two part-time administrative assistants, Keppel expects up to 10 individuals from Hampton University, the Lab, and EVMS to staff CAMI. "We pool expertise in one place and we get the word out," she says. "The idea is to become an international resource for medical physics and to invite physicians, companies and patient advocacy groups to partner with us."
The types of devices being proposed by CAMI proponents would be precise, non-invasive, and portable, even small by comparison with many of the medical diagnostic imaging devices routinely used today. Although we're in a new millennium," Keppel quips, "we're not quite yet to the 'Star Trek' tricorder level, but someday we could be."
Additional innovation may lead to hand-held wireless devices that could do away with the thick cables now required for connection and operation. "The Trek-like tricorder is not that wild of an idea," Keppel contends. "It's entirely feasible that, eventually, diagnostic devices could be completely non-invasive."
"We have this technology and this knowledge," she says. "We should share it and help people. We can make a difference and, I think, quickly."