Listening for the sound of cancer

Eric Strohm conducts research using Ryerson's photoacoustic microscope. (Emma Childs/Ryersonian Staff)

Eric Strohm conducts research using Ryerson’s photoacoustic microscope. (Emma Childs/Ryersonian Staff)

In December, Ryerson biomedical physics student Eric Strohm became the first PhD graduate to emerge from the faculty of science. In doing so, he presented a thesis that established the foundation for a new form of cancer research, garnering overnight success. His lab is hidden away in Kerr Hall East, just down the hall from Tim Hortons. Inside, the room is bright under fluorescent lighting and there’s a constant hum coming from the devices s  urrounding the lab. It’s a labyrinth of connecting rooms, filled with machines. “It’s a little cramped in here,” he warns.

Working under the supervision of Ryerson professor Michael Kolios, Strohm has developed a brand new approach to identifying cancer. “We’re trying to differentiate tumour cells from normal, healthy cells,” explains Strohm. The method involves charging a cell with a pulse of light, and then measuring the high frequency sound waves that are emitted. It creates what Strohm calls an “acoustic signature.” For his research, Strohm uses what is known as a photoacoustic microscope, which he says “combines an ultrasound device with a typical optical microscope.” Ryerson is home to one of only two of these devices worldwide, having been lucky enough to obtain one with the faculty’s funding. “I’m not too concerned with the imaging aspects,” he explains. “I want to see what the sound waves look like.”


Eric Strohm holds a box of ultrasound equipment in his Kerr Hall laboratory. (Emma Childs/Ryersonian Staff)

To test the method, Strohm spikes healthy blood samples with tumour cells to “hear” the difference between the two. “In order to get fresh blood, I use my own,” he admits. He pricks his fingertip to draw the blood, combines it with diseased cells that are smeared onto a glass slide and positions it under the microscope.

By relying on sound rather than sight, Strohm’s research offers the potential to diagnose diseased cells faster. “Early detection of these tumour cells is really crucial to good treatment,” says Strohm. “If you have a tumour somewhere in the body like the liver, eventually it may give off tumour cells and these will circulate in the bloodstream. Eventually they’ll implant somewhere else and then you have these cancers growing elsewhere in the body.”


Manufactured in Germany, Ryerson’s photoacoustic microscope is one of only two in the world. (courtesy Eric Strohm).

The potential of Kolios and Strohm’s research was immediately recognized by the medical community. Dr. Siân Bevan, director of research for the Canadian Cancer Society, praised the duo for their “innovative application of technology to a persistent problem in cancer,” and provided them with funding opportunities to continue their research in this field. It was also featured in Scientific American, a science and technology magazine from the U.S.

This achievement is what Carl Kumaradas, Ryerson’s biomedical physics program director, calls a “milestone” for the faculty of science, which is only in its second year of existence. “It’s important for a new faculty to show that it has graduate programs and it can succeed.” he says. “The quality of the thesis, the potential impact of the work … that all reflects very strongly to the community that we’re not only producing students of the highest degree but that (they are) very successful students.”

Strohm hopes the science program will receive recognition, noting that his school is mostly known for its arts and humanities programs. “Media exposure will do a lot of good for getting the word out there that Ryerson’s a great place, there’s a lot of good research, and we can get stronger students coming into the program.”

New students entering the program can look forward to making the transition from Kerr Hall East to a new research facility at St. Michael’s Hospital in 2015. “At St. Mike’s they will have access to state-of-the-art multidisciplinary clinical and biomedical expertise as well as administrative support for clinically relevant research,” says Dr. Yeni Yucel, researcher at St. Michael’s Hospital. And while Strohm recognizes the advantages of the integrated facility, he says the most beneficial aspect of the move will be the increased space. Kumaradas agrees.

“Equipment is very good here; space is tight.”

A few doors down from the lab, Strohm shares an office with a handful of other doctoral students working under Kolios’s supervision. Here, he works as a post-doctoral fellow completely funded by the Canadian Cancer Society, with Bevan calling him “an emerging expert” in his field. Strohm proves that four years of undergraduate work, two separate master’s degrees and a PhD is worthy of a little blood spilled.

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