Combining scientific disciplines to tackle a common problem can be very powerful. In broad terms, biology benefits greatly from the processing and computational prowess of computer science and the molecular studies of chemistry. At the University of Wisconsin, Madison, a cross-disciplinary team is breaking the standard notions of tumor ablations.
To ablate a tumor means to destroy it by heating up the cancer cells until they die. Current methods of ablation involve sticking a large antenna into the skin that delivers radiation directly to malignant cells. It is believed that low-frequency radiation is the only radiation that will ablate tumors, so the fact that the antennas need to be large and invasive to deliver the proper dosage is viewed as a necessary evil.
University of Wisconsin professor of neurosurgery Joshua Medow chose not to accept this idea. He figured that using higher frequencies could open up many medical advantages, and wanted to see if ablation could be modified and still be as effective. With this goal in mind, he contacted Susan Hagness, professor of electrical and computer engineering, and asked for her help in designing a better tumor ablater.
Through simulations and then trials, the team learned that, if executed correctly, high-frequency radiation could be just as potent as low-frequency radiation in terms of ablation. This was very exciting news for the team because, most importantly, it meant that the antenna could be downsized, making the treatment much more accurate and much less invasive.
"Sometimes surgeons need to treat a tumor where the direct line of sight from the surface of the body would route you through healthy tissue that you wouldn't want to stick a needle through," says Hagness in a UW article. "So if we can design the antenna to be small enough to route around bends, we open up a whole new realm of treatment possibilities." For instance, a smaller antenna could reach a tumor by catheter, rather than by open surgery.
The team is particularly excited about the applications of this breakthrough for brain tumors, where inserting a large antenna is particularly risky and unwieldy. A smaller antenna could reach brain tumors via blood vessels or through a small hole drilled in the skull.
This ongoing research is funded by a $390,000 grant from the National Science Foundation and by technology accelerator funding from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation. The University of Wisconsin, Madison has a thriving research and development sector which attracts $1 billion in grants each year. For further reading regarding funding for the University of Wisconsin, Madison and its studies, click on the link below:
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