Graduate research: Working toward point-of-care cancer diagnostics
The slow, exacting process of diagnosing breast cancer might be streamlined, often without sacrificing accuracy, thanks to a combination of high-speed optical microscopy and innovative software being developed at Rice University.
“Our goal is to use these imaging techniques we’ve developed to make histological diagnosis easier and faster. It even has potential for use in developing regions that don’t have the human resources and equipment necessary for the usual histologic assessment,” said Jessica Dobbs, who will receive her Ph.D. in bioengineering from Rice in May.
Dobbs works in the optical imaging and spectroscopy lab of Rebecca Richards-Kortum, the Malcolm Gillis University Professor and professor of bioengineering and of electrical and computer engineering. The goal was to develop more efficient ways to analyze optical images of breast cancer, the most common and deadly cancer among women worldwide.
Presently, diagnosing the disease involves an intricate, multi-step procedure. Tissue is removed by core-needle biopsy or surgical excision, and pathologists prepare it for analysis and histological assessment. Under a microscope, cancerous and precancerous cells appear different from healthy cells.
“We’ve substantially reduced the tissue-preparation process. It relies on measurable criteria, which could reduce subjectivity in tissue evaluation,” Dobbs said.
After graduating from high school, Dobbs worked as a researcher for a startup company associated with Wayne State University in Detroit. There she helped evaluate ultrasound tomography (3D scans of whole breasts acquired with a novel medical device) to monitor responses to neoadjuvant chemotherapy. When she enrolled at the University of Michigan, Dobbs planned to follow a pre-med track but soon realized she most enjoyed research. In 2010 she earned her B.S. in cellular and molecular biology: biomedical engineering.
That year she came to Rice and joined Richards-Kortum’s lab. In 2015, her group, with members from Rice, MD Anderson and Duke University, published “Micro-anatomical quantitative optical imaging: Toward automated assessment of breast tissues” in the open-access journal Breast Cancer Research. Dobbs and a Ph.D. student at Duke were the study’s lead authors.
“To evaluate fresh breast tissue at the point of care could change the current practice of pathology,” said Richards-Kortum, the study’s lead researcher. “We have developed a faster means to classify benign and malignant human breast tissues using fresh samples and thereby removing the need for time-consuming tissue preparation.”
The software uses images from a confocal fluorescence microscope to analyze freshly cut human breast tissue samples. It uses the parameter data to classify the tissue in each image and determines whether the imaged tissue is benign or malignant.
Though the software has shown promising clinical results, more research and refinement of the classification procedures is necessary. “There’s more work to do but the results are encouraging,” Dobbs said. “This research could potentially make breast cancer diagnosis faster and less subjective.”