Unique Imaging System Will Advance Alternative Methods of Detecting and Treating Breast Cancer

Terahertz system will advance research in several other areas

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – The acquisition of a state-of-the-art terahertz imaging system will enable University of Arkansas researchers to further their investigation of an alternative method of detecting and treating breast cancer. The unique system, made possible by a $400,000 grant from the National Science Foundation and $171,428 in matching funds from the university, will deepen scientists’ understanding and use of terahertz radiation and imaging techniques as they apply to a variety of applications.

“Among many important applications, this system will allow us to continue our work on developing a non-hazardous and non-invasive imaging system for breast-cancer,” said Magda El-Shenawee, professor of electrical engineering and principal investigator for the NSF award. “But it’s really more than that. For the work that Robert Griffin and I do, the system includes therapeutic applications as well. Because of the unique properties of terahertz light, the system will help reduce cancer recurrence by contributing to the thermal ablation of tumors.”

Co-investigators of the NSF grant are Greg Salamo, Distinguished Professor of physics, and Steve Stephenson, research professor in biological sciences, at the University of Arkansas; Robert Griffin, professor of radiation oncology at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences; and Gilbert Pacey, professor of biochemistry at Miami University in Ohio.

In addition to exploring alternative imaging systems for breast cancer, the system will help researchers at the Institute for Nanoscience and Engineering guide the fabrication of nanoscale materials and devices. It will also help biologists study the water content of plants and the presence of fungi in various types of both living and dead plant material.

Pulsed terahertz spectroscopy and imaging is ideal for producing high-quality images, in this case up to 80 micrometers. One of the advantages of terahertz light over visible light is less scattering of waves, which thus allows deeper imaging into an object. Also, because terahertz radiation can transmit through most non-metallic materials, the systems can “see” through concealing barriers such as packaging, corrugated cardboard, walls, clothing, shoes, book bags and pill coatings. When the terahertz rays penetrate these materials, they can also characterize hidden items, including explosives and chemical or biological agents.

Having previously worked on large-scale, microwave systems to detect buried land mines, El-Shenawee applied the principles and technology of these systems to the human body, specifically the search for breast tumors. For the past several years, she has focused her efforts on developing these detection systems, as well as investigating the unique electromagnetic signals emitted by breast cancer cells. The new system will allow her to continue the detection research, which she works in collaboration with two researchers at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences – Dr. Suzanne Klimberg, professor and director of the division of breast surgical oncology in the department of surgery; and Valentina Todorova, assistant professor in the department of surgery – and Ahmed Hassan, a postdoctoral fellow of electrical engineering at the University of Arkansas.

The new system will help Salamo investigate sound amplification by stimulated emission of phonons. To accomplish this, the key initially is to focus on creating materials for acoustic phonon cavities and acoustic Bragg reflectors. Students will investigate the acoustic properties of nanoscale materials via terahertz spectroscopy of their folded acoustic modes. 

Stephenson’s students will use the terahertz imaging system to carry out research projects that involve determining moisture levels in plants growing under different environmental conditions. They will also assess levels of fungal colonization in living plants and various types of dead plant material.

“The major advantage of the system is that it allows measurements to be taken without destroying the sample material in the process,” Stephenson said.

Overall, these researchers’ work will have an impact on imaging systems used in various industries, including automobile, aircraft, food, pharmaceuticals, semiconductors and solar energy. After the system is installed, the researchers will hold training workshops for students, postdoctoral fellows and faculty. The NSF grant provides an opportunity for underrepresented students to be engaged in training through diversity initiatives at the University of Arkansas.


Magda El-Shenawee, professor, electrical engineering
College of Engineering
479-575-6582, magda@uark.edu

Matt McGowan, science and research communications officer
University Relations
479-575-4246, dmcgowa@uark.edu