Person in biomedical engineering lab showcasing optical imaging technologies
(Wayne Tilcock/UC Davis)

NIH Grant Creates National Center at UC Davis

College of Engineering faculty innovations spur creation of national center focused on optical imaging technologies

A new center that stands to transform surgical procedures and brain monitoring on a national scale using light-based, artificial intelligence-informed technologies is now part of UC Davis thanks to the efforts of an interdisciplinary team led by Laura Marcu, professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering.

NCIBT Group Stands in grass for group photo

Marcu and team recently secured a $6.3 million P41 grant from NIH’s National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering to create the National Center for Interventional Biophotonic Technologies (NCIBT). The NCIBT will advance two optical imaging technologies developed at UC Davisʼ College of Engineering — interventional fluorescence lifetime imaging, or iFLIM, and interferometric diffuse optical spectroscopy, or iDOS.

IFLIM, developed by Marcu’s lab, uses light measurements through a hand-held, penlike diagnostic probe in an open or endoscopic procedure to determine the tissues’ molecular constituents. This information helps determine the prevalence of healthy versus altered tissue.

IDOS, developed by Biomedical Engineering Adjunct Professor Vivek Srinivasan, uses similar, light-based optical imaging that is able to penetrate the scalp and skull to determine brain blood flow.

Both imaging technologies are noninvasive and measure fluctuations in light emanating from tissues — meaning how light is diffused or absorbed or emitted by the tissue or cells.

These technologies will be combined with an AI-deep learning platform to provide real-time guidance for decision-making during medical and surgical procedures. The center will support research and development, clinical application, and training and education of the new technologies and promote their adoption to improve the quality of interventional health care.

“We are developing a new technological paradigm for surgical and interventional medical decision-making,” said Marcu, who is founding director of the new center.

The goal is to provide clinicians with imaging information, data analysis, easily interpretable image presentations and decision-making support in real time during an operation or patient monitoring. This information will then help guide the clinician toward choices that will improve patient outcomes. Clinical applications of this technology include identification of tissue types during open or intravascular surgery and the measurement of brain blood flow in the intensive care unit or clinic.

“Decision-making about how extensive surgery must be to completely remove tumors relies heavily on the surgeon’s experience, and sometimes requires repetitive and time-consuming lab analysis of tissue around the cancer to make sure all the tumor is gone,” said David Lubarsky, CEO of UC Davis Health and a fellow of the American Society of Anesthesiologists. “This new national center will build on strengths unique to UC Davis’ School of Medicine and College of Engineering, developing new optical tools to help surgeons everywhere more often provide complete cures for their patients.”

The grant will also support the establishment of a physical center at UC Davis’ Aggie Square. This will include state-ofthe-art laboratories, teaching space, learning centers and the organizational headquarters of the center’s training and education programs. Less than two months after receiving the grant, the center has already hosted its inaugural symposium where attendees discussed innovations in light-based, AI technologies for surgical procedures.

“Advancing human health is one of our four major priorities for impactful research at the College of Engineering and the NCIBT could not be more aligned with this intention,” said Richard Corsi, dean of the College of Engineering. “NCIBT will do this work at the interface of engineering and medicine, and it is expected to have an international footprint and impact. Our college is proud to be associated with this new center and is committed to supporting its success.”

In being selected for this grant, UC Davis joins an elite cohort of two dozen institutions in the country with a P41 center. According to NIBIB, the UC Davis P41 center has the potential to rapidly advance optical imaging technologies that use AI-informed instruments. Such technologies could have a significant impact on the management of common afflictions, including cancer, stroke, heart disease, trauma, infection and degenerative diseases. In selecting UC Davis for the grant, NIBIB also noted UC Davis’ opportunity to both collaborate on a wide range of research projects at this new national center and eventually translate its discoveries into clinical applications.

“It is rewarding to see technologies developed in engineering labs go from bench to patient and, eventually through this center, from patient to population,” Marcu said, “and how engineering principles can provide pathways to create technologies and tools that can impact public health by improving patient outcomes.” 

This story was featured in the Fall 2022 issue of Engineering Progress.

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