Dr. John Zhang, assistant professor of biomedical engineering in the Cockrell School of Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin, has received nearly $1 million from the National Institute of Health’s (NIH) National Cancer Institute for his research on early detection of cancer.
Zhang is working to improve early detection of cancer through a rather simple blood test that could be applied universally. His research combines unique, disposable microchips with a special microscope that can precisely measure tumor markers, or molecules that are over expressed in cancer cells.
Invasive cancers shed tumor cells into the blood and by detecting those cells at an early stage physicians will be able to determine a prognosis and determine the treatments that should be administered to a patient.
The promise of his research led to the $950,000 award that will fund Zhang’s research initiatives over the next three years. Collaborators include Dr. Kostia Sokolov, adjunct associate professor of biomedical engineering at The University of Texas at Austin, and Drs. Eugene Frenkel and Jonathan Uhr, professors of internal medicine and radiology at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. The team also includes biomedical engineering graduate student Eric Huang and research associate Kaz Hoshino.
“Professor Zhang’s new NIH award is significant in that it enables doctors to diagnose cancer via a blood test at an earlier stage, thereby potentially increasing the cure rate,” said Nicholas A. Peppas, the Fletcher Stuckey Pratt Chair in Engineering and department chair of Biomedical Engineering. “This exciting research also echoes the department’s momentum in forming a broad medical consortium on early cancer diagnosis and our strong biomedical research focus of conquering cancer in Texas and the world.”
Zhang’s other early cancer detection research includes a handheld microscope enabled by laser microchip technology that could be used in low-infrastructure environments, such as those present in developing nations. Demographic data indicate that 60 percent of the 6.7 million annual global cancer mortalities and 54 percent of the 10.8 million new cancer patients occur in developing nations, where early screening tools are most often unavailable.
Zhang’s handheld microscope technology has been licensed to an early stage medical devices company to develop a minimally invasive surgical endoscope with real-time micro-imaging for breast and skin cancer.