It looks like a clear plastic paperweight decorated with straight and curved lines. The lines, however, are tiny plastic tubes, and they carry within them the promise of better biopsies and diagnoses of pancreatic cancer, which so far has baffled doctors seeking earlier detection of the disease.
The device is the product of University of Washington professor Eric Seibel, UW bioengineering researcher Ronnie Das and junior engineering student Chris Burfeind. The team recently returned from making a presentation on their research at a major laser/optics tech conference.
Burfeind, a 20-year-old native of Ellensburg, was looking for a research project during his sophomore year, "because I knew that it would be important for me to apply the stuff I was working on in class to some real engineering applications," he said. Seibel, director of UW's Human Photonics Lab, provided him with the challenge involving pancreatic cancer, a particularly lethal form of the disease.
Unlike other cancers, pancreatic cancers are difficult to detect early and remain a mystery regarding their behavior. Seibel, Das and Burfeind were looking for a way to speed up the biopsy and diagnosis process.
Biopsies currently involve several time-consuming steps in a lab. A lot of human hands are involved with slicing, staining, washing and analyzing samples, which consist of single cells studied in two dimensions. But what if pathologists would cut down on the time involved, have access to entire cell structures, and do all their analysis in 3D?
The team came up with the answer of using fluids to move whole tissue samples through the biopsy process, which gives pathologists a better view of the suspect cancer cells within them. "When you have more of the (tissue) structure, you're able to see how the cells are interacting with each other, and then you can gather more information from that as opposed to when you look at them as two-dimensional single cells," Burfeind said.
It was Burfeind's contribution to take several plastic tubes and curve them within the palm-sized silicon device, which gives pathologists more surface area to work with for the different stages of biopsies. "Since we're not using single cells anymore - we're using bulk tissue - that's where being able to do curved channels is really important because otherwise we wouldn't be able to change direction at all with bulk tissue."
The device has a lot of potential for developing countries because it's inexpensive to produce. "Our device is pretty easy to manufacture," Burfeind said. "A clinician could take a biopsy over in some third world country, and the device could do most of the processing and imaging for them." Those images and other information could then be sent via telemedicine to specialists. "They wouldn't even have to be in the third world country where the patient is."
The UW team has applied for a patent and is now ready for doctors to test out the device. In the meantime, Burfeind will continue his undergraduate work with an eye on a possible career in product design, "or a research and development department, making something that does stuff."