Pivotal cancer research explores new ways to detect tumours

Ryerson researchers say they've exploring alternatives to ultrasound in an effort to better detect tumours.

Ryerson researchers say they’ve exploring alternatives to ultrasound in an effort to better detect tumours. (Illustration by Dasha Zolota)

A Ryerson researcher is studying a new way to locate cancer cells. And the secret is in the blood.

Ryerson physics professor Michael Kolios is conducting research into photoacoustics, an emerging practice that foregoes traditional ultrasound detection in favour of measuring oxygen levels in blood to detect tumours.

The practice, known as biomedical photoacoustics, is an alternative to ultrasound that uses light to detect cancer instead of measuring pulses of acoustic energy, which is the method employed in ultrasounds.

“In previous grants we looked at ultrasound to detect cell depth, but now we’re looking at changes in the vasculature of tumours,” said Kolios, referring to the arrangement of blood vessels in the body.

Kolios’s work, conducted with scientists Gregory Czarnota and Greg Stanisz at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, was recently awarded $2 million by the Terry Fox Foundation. They’ll be able to use the money for more research over the next three years. The funding was part of a bigger $14.8-million national investment by the foundation.

“If there’s a tumour growing, it consumes oxygen, so the concentration of oxygen in the blood is not as it would be in healthy blood and tissue,” said Andreas Mandelis, a mechanical and industrial engineering professor at the University of Toronto. Mandelis is also an expert in diffusion-wave and photoacoustic technologies.

Kolios’ research is an extension of his earlier work with Sunnybrook, which consisted of trials with 100 breast cancer patients. The new work aims to use ultrasound technologies on more patients in various locations to determine whether their treatment is working.

As with imaging technology, biomedical photoacoustics don’t penetrate deep into the body as far as ultrasound or x-rays do. Kolios’ work focuses on using high frequencies to view just under the surface of the skin.

“They’re one of the very few groups who are working at such high frequencies…they have been directing their attention to the quality of blood, and what makes blood healthy,” said Mandelis.

Despite the thorough research into photoacoustics, it’s still not as widely accepted for clinical applications as ultrasound is.

“The downside is that it’s a complicated technology,” said Mandelis.

Meanwhile, there is other cancer research being carried out at Ryerson. While Kolios is working on the detection of tumours, associate physics professor Jahan Tavakkoli is focusing on treating them in a new way.

“Right now there’s no other option than radical surgery,” said Tavakkoli. “We’re trying to come up with a new method that doesn’t mean surgery, so no cutting – we’re taking on the idea of non-invasive surgery.”

Working with St. Michael’s and Toronto Western hospitals, Tavakkoli is researching into a new method of surgery called high intensity focused ultrasound (HIFU). Currently, HIFU is being used to treat prostate cancer and breast cancer, two of the most common forms of cancer in Canada.

As of 2014, prostate cancer counts for 24 per cent of all new cancer cases in men, while breast cancer accounts for about 26 per cent of all new cancer cases in women, according to Statistics Canada.

The idea behind HIFU is focusing a point of high temperature, or mechanical energy, onto an area of the body in order to destroy diseased or damaged tissue.

“It’s still a novel idea,” said Tavakkoli. “But you can see there’s already a number of clinical devices out there which are being used on patients.”

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