Crystal Ball: What Does the Future Hold for the Detection and Treatment of Brain Tumors?

Winter 2010

Q. What does the future hold for detection and treatment of brain tumors?

A. Jin U. Kang, professor and chair of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering in the Whiting School of Engineering:
“We are developing a high-tech tool that would allow for a ‘virtual biopsy.’ Brain surgeons will be able to locate and get a clear look at cancerous tissue—in some cases eliminating the need to cut into the brain for a traditional biopsy, which poses risks for patients. The idea is to provide instant high-resolution pictures of internal cellular structures of a small segment of the brain without actually touching the tissue. These pictures would let the surgeon see where the tumor is and whether it is benign or malignant. And when it’s time to cut out the cancer, these images could help a surgeon see and avoid healthy tissue.

“Our team has been collaborating with leading surgeons at Johns Hopkins Medicine. Their feedback has been very encouraging. They’ve told us that the technology should allow them to better distinguish between a tumor and the critical tissue structures around it that are so important to avoid, such as blood vessels and nerves.

“The tool is innovative and cost-effective. It works by employing ultra-thin optical fiber, the material used in long-distance communication systems, to direct harmless, low-powered laser light onto the area the surgeon wants to examine. When the light strikes the tissue, most of it bounces away in a scattered, incoherent manner. But, by means of a technique called optical coherence tomography, the small portion of light that is scattered back can be collected and used to construct a high-resolution three-dimensional picture of the tissue, down to the cellular level. These images are significantly sharper than those produced by MRI or ultrasound equipment, and should give surgeons a better look at the boundaries of a tumor and the presence of blood vessels and healthy tissue that must be preserved. Compared to the older, widely used imaging systems, the new technology is much less expensive, perhaps in the order of tens of thousands of dollars.

“Thanks to recent funding from the federal stimulus package, I’ve been able to move ahead with developing the technology for the high-tech surgical instrument that will make these virtual biopsies one step closer. The funding will enable us to begin testing in animals and human cadavers, and I’m hopeful that human patient trials could begin within five years.”