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Abdollah Mirbozorgi, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, recently received a National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER grant for his research into a device that could more precisely attack cancerous tumors through precision ablation.

The grant, worth nearly $550,000 over five years, will fund his project “Heat Penetration Depth and Direction Control with Closed Loop Device for Precision Ablation.”

Mirbozorgi’s project will focus on “Tumor Precision Ablation,” a technique designed to precisely control the dispersion of heat in tissues. Mirbozorgi explains, “Ablation is a very effective way to attack unwanted tissue such as tumors. But currently, there is no way to control the direction the heat travels or how far it goes. Heat that is generated to attack a tumor will damage surrounding healthy tissue as well.”

In many procedures, such damage is a necessary side effect, and surgeons may damage healthy tissue with the intention of ensuring they eradicate all cancer cells. In more delicate types of surgery, however, such damage is not worth the risk.

“In brain surgery, for example, damage to any healthy tissue could affect the patient’s ability to talk or walk, or any number of essential life functions,” Mirbozorgi said. “In those cases, it is particularly vital that we create a tool that will allow surgeons to precisely control the dispersion of heat.”

Mirbozorgi graphicMirbozorgi’s approach involves a first-of-its-kind ablation catheter with an integrated heat producer-absorber module for applying an alternate heating and freezing process. It is this process that will allow surgeons to limit the spread of heat, but Mirbozorgi says the ability to control the direction of the heat dispersion is also essential when dealing with asymmetric tumors. To do that, he intends to use low-power ultrasound to manipulate the density of tissue to control the heat, while also employing innovative ultra-wideband (UWB) sensors for continuous tracking of the ablation progress. “This will allow accurate and immediate closed-loop control of ablation penetration,” he said.

The project grew out of Mirbozorgi’s work over the past decade developing UWBs. When he introduced his idea of precision ablation to medical practitioners in the field of neurosurgery, however, he realized the real urgency underlying this project’s potential impact.

“This is a five-year project, and in that time, we plan to develop a working prototype and proof that the process will work in animal models,” Mirbozorgi said. “But doctors we have talked to have stressed that there are patients who could benefit from this technology immediately. There are patients whose brain tumors are currently inoperable because the risk of damaging critical brain tissue is too great.”

The NSF CAREER grants do not allow for multiple principal investigators, but Mirbozorgi has assembled an advisory board of faculty to assist with the project. Those include mechanical engineering team of S. Ali Mirbozorgi, Ph.D., Professor at the University of Birjand; Roy Koomulil, Ph.D., Associate Professor, and Iwan Alexander, Ph.D., Professor and Dean Emeritus from the School of Engineering; as well as medical team of Ben Larimer, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Jesse Jones, M.D., Assistant Professor, and James Markert, M.D., MPH, Professor from the Heersink School of Medicine.

Learn more about Mirbozorgi's research at the Mirbozorgi Lab Website.