A collaborative agreement with GSK, a research-based pharmaceutical and healthcare company, and the Biophotonics Imaging Laboratory at the Beckman Institute has created the GSK Center for Optical Molecular Imaging. Stephen Boppart, professor of electrical and computer engineering, bioengineering, medicine, and head of the Biophotonics Imaging Lab, is the university director of the center, which plans to first investigate skin health by developing advanced optical molecular imaging technologies.
“GSK approached my group a couple of years ago because of their interest in using novel optical techniques and tools to track drugs in the skin. One of the big questions with drugs is where do they go and what effect do they have? There really is no regular way of tracking that at the molecular and cellular level in living tissue, especially with new drugs,” said Boppart.
The new center represents a unique academic-industry partnership for not only cutting-edge research, but also educational and training opportunities for Illinois students and GSK scientists. Zane Arp, U.S. leader for Imaging Technologies at GSK, will serve as the GSK scientific lead of the center.
“A key area that will enable improvements in pharmaceutical development is the ability to track where the drugs go, how they distribute, and the changes they have on tissues at the cellular and subcellular level. GSK believes that optical techniques such as those in Professor Boppart’s laboratories will enable improved understanding of these mechanisms and improve our ability to develop new treatments for patients,” said Arp.
Boppart’s lab at the Beckman Institute has developed numerous optical imaging technologies for diagnosing diseases such as breast cancer, ear infections, and disorders in the retina.
“Optics are very good at looking at cellular structure and function, and we have ways of assessing how healthy the cell is: Is it changing its metabolism? How are the cell and tissue responding to treatment?” said Boppart.
Optical imaging also does not necessarily require stains or dyes, so the techniques do not introduce any new materials into a patient. In some applications, it can be performed as a patient is in surgery or non-invasively, yielding results more quickly than traditional histology or pathology tests, which can limit the number of diagnostic surgeries needed for certain diseases.
“Our previous and ongoing work has been done with optical coherence tomography (OCT), which is one optical technique. Much of what we’re doing now with the skin and also developing for breast imaging and for other applications is optical molecular imaging,” said Boppart.
“A key area that will enable improvements in pharmaceutical development is the ability to track where the drugs go, how they distribute, and the changes they have on tissues at the cellular and subcellular level. GSK believes that optical techniques such as those in Professor Boppart’s laboratories will enable improved understanding of these mechanisms and improve our ability to develop new treatments for patients” --Zane Arp, U.S. leader for Imaging Technologies at GSK
Boppart says understanding the molecular composition of the tissue is often more important for diagnosing and treating a disease than understanding the cellular structure.
“The example I always give is that we use CT or MRI to find tumor masses, but those are often centimeter size masses representing structural changes that have taken years to develop. But the molecular changes happen very early,” Boppart said.
“Getting a look at how the molecules are changing earlier will help with treatment,” Boppart said. “In some of our cancer imaging studies, we’re finding microvesicles, a hot topic now in cancer biology. Tumor cells will release these microvesicles, which contain signaling molecules, to go out and condition the microenvironment. The cells in the microenvironment become transformed and are ready to accept the tumor cells that are migrating. We actually have the technology that can visualize this now.”
A previous successful clinical trial with the Department of Dermatology at Carle Foundation Hospital brought together the technology from the Biophotonics Imaging Lab, drug development from GSK, and the clinical expertise of Carle physicians, research coordinators, and staff to track where drugs go in human skin.
“The collaborative interdisciplinary community of investigators and physicians that came together for this clinical trial demonstrated that this would be an ideal place for a center that integrates imaging advances into GSK’s drug development pipeline to understand mechanisms, reduce long term costs, and deliver higher quality medicines to our patients,” Arp said.
Boppart’s group is refining its technological developments to provide practical uses in a clinical setting.
“Part of the technical challenge is to make these systems compact, because traditionally they have used large lasers that often fill an optical table, so a lot of the work in my group has been to reduce these down to fiber lasers, which are much more compact and user friendly,” said Boppart. “We envision these imaging systems will all fit onto a cart that can be used in clinical settings. Beam delivery can then take many forms. It can look like a microscope, or it can look like a handheld probe, or an optical fiber.”
Future directions could involve making the technology even more portable, for example, using diagnostic technology developed in the College of Engineering to create handheld sensing devices through a smartphone.
“Someday, we can give these handheld units to doctors in the clinic. So when they apply a drug to a patient, they can track it to make sure enough is there, and confirm that the drug is working. Every patient is going to metabolize these drugs differently. So you can’t just apply the same dose to every patient, you need some way of monitoring to understand did they get the right amount of drug, did their cells respond appropriately; that’s where personalized medicine could be achieved. These methods fit with GSK’s mission of improving patient health. By reducing the need for invasive testing and giving better, earlier indications as to whether a drug is having any effect, patient outcomes and new drug development will both benefit,” said Arp.
“As we’re building our new engineering-based college of medicine, this is one example where engineering faculty, researchers, and students are working with Carle physicians on research that’s of interest to industry and the broader community for developing new drugs and improving healthcare,” said Boppart.