AUSTIN, Texas — People seeking to remove a disfiguring “port wine stain” skin condition may someday thank a doctoral student recently graduated from The University of Texas at Austin for a more effective treatment. Jennifer Barton, a biomedical engineer, discovered a way to view and measure tiny blood vessels using a new imaging technique. Her efforts received international attention last year from the International Society for Optical Engineering.
Port wine stain, a blood vessel abnormality, is characterized by red or purple blotches on the skin that can be large and cosmetically undesirable. It can cause considerable social and psychological distress, especially in children. As patients age, port wine stain gets raised and bumpy, which can cause mobility problems for affected eyelids or fingers. Current laser treatments consist of a trial-and-error procedure that lightens the lesions but often leaves the skin far from its usual tone. Because of large variations in the distribution, depth and diameter of the vessels, no single set of ideal laser settings exists for every treatment.
Barton obtained a clear image and measurement of blood vessels near the surface of the skin where the vessels create the problem in port wine stain. This accurate picture of the blood vessels allows laser treatments to become customized to the skin’s anatomy, thus making the treatment potentially far more effective.
Barton’s method, optical coherence tomography, basically is a light imaging technique. Noninvasive and painless, it consists of illuminating an area of the skin with a laser diode for several seconds. This provides a reflected-light reading of the skin’s underlying structure, which includes blood vessels in the area. Then Barton combines a sequence of images to create a three-dimensional representation of the skin’s subsurface. The only other method of viewing a patient’s skin anatomy this precisely would require examining an actual cross-section of flesh under a microscope.
So far, experiments have been conducted using hamsters. Barton estimates that human trials are at least two years away because of a few technical difficulties yet to be solved.
“She’s taken several difficult concepts and combined them to provide a technique that may aid the treatment of port wine stain,” said her supervisor, Dr. Ashley J. Welch, professor of biomedical engineering at UT Austin. “The techniques include the ability to noninvasively image blood vessels in the skin using optical coherence tomography, to model the geometry of blood vessels, to determine the amount of laser light absorbed by the blood vessels and to relate model predictions to actual laser coagulation of blood vessels.”
Although optical coherence tomography has existed since the early 1990s, Barton applied the imaging technique to an unexplored realm in biomedical engineering. She researched this area for three years and received an award for her work from the International Society for Optical Engineering in 1997. The $7,000 award, the D.J. Lovell Scholarship, is for the “long-range contribution … to optics and optical engineering.”
Barton earned her bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering from the University in 1988 and her master’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of California, Irvine, in 1993. She recently accepted a position at the University of Arizona as an assistant professor.