Haichong Zhang, an assistant professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, has been given a Director’s Early Independence Award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to support his work in designing a robotic system to better detect and monitor prostate cancer.
Currently, prostate cancer is diagnosed via a blood test that measures levels of prostate-specific antigen (PSA; a protein that rises in the blood of people with prostate cancer), a manual rectal examination, biopsies, and ultrasounds. None of these methods are perfect: biopsies often provide inaccurate information about tumor grade or stage, and less than half of abnormal manual rectal exams end up actually finding cancer.
Many imaging techniques, like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), also require the use of a radioactive dye, which carries its own health risks.
“Right now, the best methods for detecting prostate cancer early are not nearly as accurate as we need them to be, and they are not risk-free,” Zhang, whose specialty is biomedical and robotics engineering, said in a press release. “My goal is to create a minimally invasive, easily accessible, and cost-effective way to better detect this cancer.”
The award includes $1.87 million given over the course of five years, for a project titled “Multiparametric Photoacoustic Imaging-Based Identification of Aggressive Prostate Cancer” (DP5 OD028162), of which Zhang is the primary investigator.
The project aims to develop a surgical imaging robot that operates within an MRI machine to insert an imaging probe into the patient’s rectum, next to the prostate. Then, using a combination of light and sound waves, the robot will generate a three-dimensional (3D) image of the prostate — and any tumor within it.
In addition to detecting tumors in earlier stages than other imaging methods, the hope is that, by pinpointing the tumor’s exact location, the robot will also be able to take image-guided needle biopsies.
The combination of light and sound waves may also be able to convey information about how much oxygen the prostate tissue is getting. Tumors tend to have poor circulation, meaning they are often areas of hypoxia, or low oxygen levels, and detecting these areas may help detect a tumor.
Another aim of the project is to create a non-radioactive imaging dye for the detection of PSMA, a protein expressed by many prostate cancer cells.
“Three-D images, PSMA detection and hypoxia detection are all complimentary,” said Zhang. “They all give us different clues, different approaches to detecting cancer at a much higher sensitivity. That means we should be able to detect prostate cancer earlier when it’s much more treatable.”