Developing a new x-ray detector to help find breast cancer
Tomi Nano, a PhD candidate in the Department of Medical Biophysics at Western University, has always had a curiosity about how things work. “It is fascinating to make possible what was previously impossible. In this sense, medical biophysics is a perfect field where scientists have a lot of opportunities to develop new technologies that reduce the burden of disease.”
With a background in physics, computer science and mathematics, Tomi entered the department seeking to develop an ideal x-ray detector. What does an “ideal x-ray detector” mean? “Such a detector must produce the highest-quality images with the lowest level of radiation,” says Tomi.
Tomi Nano works at Robarts Research Institute and is conducting his PhD research in the lab of Dr. Ian Cunningham. “Once I came to Western and saw the Medical Biophysics Department, I immediately wanted to work with colleagues that have the same interests as myself. My supervisor, Dr. Cunningham, is a scientist and also an entrepreneur who applies research in industry, and this combination of research and practice is what I admire the most.”
As Tomi explains, the higher the quality of the images, the better physicians can see slight changes within the breast that are indicative of disease, “but we cannot enhance visualization by putting patients at risk of excessive radiation. Mammography is one of the most frequent x-ray procedures. To provide physicians with the best breast images and also keep patients safe is a worthy task that inspires me.”
For more than 50 years, mammography has been the best screening test available for women that helps detect breast cancer before any symptoms appear. Basically, a mammogram is an x-ray picture of the breast. If it is detected in the early stages, breast cancer is less likely to spread to other body parts and more likely to be treated successfully.
In the lab, Tomi and his colleagues measure x-ray detector performance and can tell exactly how good a detector is performing. The ability of an x-ray detector to acquire high signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) images has been shown to be crucial in detecting breast cancer. “We measure the performance of a detector using a quantity called the Detective Quantum Efficiency (DQE). Most of the current detectors have lower performance in visualizing small structures, like fractures in a bone or microcalcifications in a mammogram. Our lab, under the guidance of Dr. Cunningham, came up with a new x-ray detector design called the Apodized-Aperture Pixel (AAP) Design, that can achieve ideal performance. AAP improves the performance of x-ray detectors and creates images with good visualization of small structures.”
The experimental part of this research involves using new detector technology and tumor tissues samples, with calcification, which Tomi tries to improve the visualization in x-ray images. “We also collaborate with engineers at University of Waterloo in Dr. Karim’s lab and a radiologist at St. Joseph’s Hospital, Dr. Anat Kornecki. In the very near future – just in a couple of months – our team hopes to be getting biopsy samples from patients and trying to figure out how we can image them,” says Tomi.
“A part of my research goal is to start applying the new design that we have come up with on patient samples. At the same time, there is a lot of theoretical work, mathematics and physics. We do a lot of computer simulations and laboratory work to test new concepts. From this point of view, collaborations with engineers and clinicians are extremely important.”
As Tomi repeatedly emphasizes, incorporating people with diverse expertise into his research field is the key to success. “The engineers that we collaborate with understand very well how to build our ideal detector physically. The radiologists understand what is needed clinically. None of us individually would be able to improve breast cancer detection, but together we combine our specialties and will be able to achieve something that was previously not possible.”
Although Tomi and his coworkers focuses mainly on mammography applications of their technology, they also investigate its potential benefits 3D imaging such as tomosynthesis and computer tomography (CT). “I will be happy to see as many positive applications of my research where possible. When looking around, I realize that most of us have been affected by breast cancer, directly or indirectly. Yet, in the last years, treatment and cancer detection have impressively improved, and this has encouraged me to stay positive and go further.”
Support researchers like Tomi Nano and others by considering a donation to the Breast Cancer Society of Canada. Find out how you can help fund life-saving research, visit bcsc.ca/donate
Tomi Nano’s story was transcribed from interviews conducted by BCSC volunteer Natalia Mukhina – Health journalist, reporter and cancer research advocate
Natalia Mukhina, MA in Health Studies, is a health journalist, reporter and cancer research advocate with a special focus on breast cancer. She is blogging on the up-to-date diagnostic and treatment opportunities, pharmaceutical developments, clinical trials, research methods, and medical advancements in breast cancer. Natalia participated in numerous breast cancer conferences including 18th Patient Advocate Program at 38th San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium. She is a member of The Association of Health Care Journalists.