With the Researcher Spotlight, the Microbial Systems Initiative aims to introduce you to the breadth and diversity of research interests and potential growth opportunities on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus. We hope that by highlighting both the researchers and their research, we can help you to learn more about and connect with your colleagues to enhance multidisciplinary research and education in microbial sciences here at Illinois.
Stephen Boppart, M.D., Ph.D., heads the Biophotonics Imaging Laboratory and is Director of the Center for Optical Molecular Imaging at the Beckman Institute. He is an Abel Bliss Professor of Engineering with appointments in the Departments of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Bioengineering. He also serves as Interim Executive Associate Dean and Chief Diversity Officer for the new Carle Illinois College of Medicine. Prof. Boppart received his Ph.D. in Electrical and Medical Engineering from MIT in 1998 and his M.D. from Harvard Medical School in 2000. Currently he combines his optical imaging and biophotonics research and teaching with clinical research in novel medical technologies and has launched 4 companies. One of the companies – PhotoniCare – is based in the University of Illinois Research Park.
What is your research in microbial systems about?
My Biophotonics Imaging Laboratory at the Beckman Institute is focused on developing novel optical imaging technologies and translating these into clinical use. About a decade ago, we realized that the instruments used in Primary Care and in Pediatrician offices to diagnose ear infections are little more than a magnifying lens and a pen light, and these alone cannot see behind the ear drum where the infection lies. Since virtually every child experiences ear infections, and since many progress to chronic recurrent infections that are often treated surgically with tubes, we wanted to develop a better way to see into the ear. Clinically, this is also important because for many front-line physicians, the accuracy for correctly identifying an ear infection requiring antibiotic treatment is roughly 50%, a coin toss. To address this significant medical problem, we developed a new type of otoscope that integrates optical coherence tomography (OCT) to image through the ear drum and into the middle ear cavity, where we can visualize effusions (fluid) or bacterial biofilms that may have become established, particularly in chronic ear infections.
How are you conducting your research?
Our research spans many stages, from engineering and technology development of portable OCT imaging systems and handheld otoscope-like probes, to growing and imaging bacterial biofilms under lab culture conditions, to pre-clinical animals studies where we can investigate how antibiotic interventions affect biofilms, and finally, to clinical human studies where we have completed a number of investigations on detecting, imaging, and characterizing effusions, biofilms, and changes following surgical or medical treatment interventions. Our research involves an interdisciplinary group of investigators including engineering students and post-docs, primary care and otolaryngology physicians, pediatricians, and clinical research staff.
How does being a part of the Illinois community support and enhance your research?
Our Illinois community is becoming increasingly fertile for doing this type of translational research. We have many campus faculty in engineering and the sciences with novel ideas that emerge from their labs, and can be evaluated in various human subjects research studies at both the university as well as our local and regional medical partners with collaborating physicians. Because our technology, and those of many others, often has the potential for larger impact in biology and medicine, our Office of Technology Management, Research Park, and early-stage funding opportunities provide the guidance and help to drive ideas and technologies on toward commercialization and wider dissemination.
How will your research or work improve society or reach people?
I think we are already seeing the impact of our work. Our initial NIH-funded research led to clinical studies and device prototypes that addressed a clear need in healthcare, and we were able to form a start-up company, PhotoniCare, that is located in EnterpriseWorks in our Research Park. With both small-business federal funding and venture capital, our company has developed commercial prototypes and conducted clinical studies that truly demonstrate to practicing physicians how they can improve their diagnostic ability and their clinical care in this highly prevalent disease. I believe in the next 5 years we will see our technology become adopted and used clinically, and hopefully become the gold-standard for diagnosing and monitoring ear infections. With a diagnostic tool such as this, we’ll be able to treat and manage ear infections more appropriately, which includes reducing the over-prescription of antibiotics, reducing the development of antibiotic resistance, and better determining which patients need to go to surgery to treat their chronic ear infection. Ultimately, this will improve patient care and reduce the societal time and financial burden of this disease.
Do you have a personal story to share or path that led to your interest in this area of study?
Aside from having ear infections myself as a child, and having had several children of my own with acute and chronic ear infections, even surgery, our interest in this area and the launch of this research direction came from the serendipitous coincidence of recognizing a clinical problem and considering a technological solution. In 2006, we tried imaging bacterial biofilms in the lab using OCT because we noticed that biofilms were growing in some of our dirty glassware! The images were intriguing because OCT was able to image through the biofilms, up to a millimeter or two deep, far deeper than a standard microscope. We also were able to visualize many microstructural features inside the films, which largely only appeared as schematic drawings in papers and textbooks. At the same time, a high-profile clinical study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) linking chronic ear infections to middle-ear bacterial biofilms. We immediately made the connection that OCT could possibly image biofilms in the human ear, without having to surgically cut open the ear drum to find out (as they did in the study). That launched over a decade of NIH-funded research, and now a company to drive this technology into widespread use. I believe that there are enormous opportunities for connections like this to be made, particularly driven by our Carle Illinois College of Medicine that seeks to train the next generation of physicians to approach medical problems and challenges with innovation and engineering- or technology-based solutions. I look forward to seeing the ideas, innovations, and impact that our students will undoubtedly make.