Rice Team Earns $10M NSF Award for Live Biology Microscopy

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The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded $10 million to a Rice University-led team that aims to create wearable and point-of-care microscopes that use on-chip illumination and sensing to noninvasively aid in the diagnosis and monitoring of nearly 100 health conditions that today require a biopsy or blood test.

"The project will produce a platform technology for in vivo, 3D tissue imaging, with the aim of being able to point a camera to a part of the body and see live biology below the skin without making an incision or drawing blood," said professor Ashutosh Sabharwal, the principal investigator on the grant.

Sabharwal's team, which includes 11 co-investigators from Rice, Carnegie Mellon, Harvard, MIT and Cornell, is one of three groups to win new five-year grants today from the NSF's Expeditions in Computing program. Expeditions is an interdisciplinary NSF effort that constitutes the agency's largest single investment in computer and information science research. Since 2008, NSF has invested more than $200 million in Expeditions projects.

"Expeditions supports transformative research, and our goal is to create miniaturized, light-based microscopes for use in wearables, point-of-care, bedside diagnostics, ambulances, operating rooms and more," Sabharwal said.

Sabharwal's team will attempt to reduce light scatter through soft tissue with computational scatterography. The researchers will use a combination of mathematical algorithms, camera design and imaging sensors to reverse engineer the path of scattered light.

"Basically, we're trying to de-scatter the light," said professor Ashok Veeraraghavan, Rice co-investigator and assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering. "In engineering, we call this an inverse problem. Geoscientists use similar inverse techniques on seismic waves to resolve pictures of Earth's deep interior. Our task, in some ways, is even more complicated because the amount of light scattering that takes place in even a few millimeters of tissue far exceeds other problems."

Sabharwal pointed to white blood cell count (WBC) tests as an example of the project's potential impact. In the U.S., oncologists use millions of WBC tests each week to monitor chemotherapy patients. WBC tests require a finger prick or blood draw and a laboratory, which means they can be performed only at hospitals and clinics.

"Imagine a wearable device no larger than a watch that uses sensors to continuously measure white blood cell count and wirelessly communicate with the oncologist's office," Sabharwal said. "The patient could go about their daily life. They'd only have to go to the hospital if there was a problem."

The researchers make it clear that this scatterography project is not a single-use health care platform.

"If we succeed, this isn't just one product," Sabharwal said. "It's a platform technology that will be able to spin off into many products that can be used in the care of nearly 100 health conditions."

Published: March 2018
BusinessNational Science FoundationRice UniversityAshutosh SabharwalLight SourcesBiophotonicsMicroscopyAmericasRapidScan

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