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Interdisciplinary Projects for Medicine
October 29, 2010   
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Interdisciplinary projects in which medicine blends with physics and chemistry contribute to the prevention and treatment of a growing number of diseases. Such projects also aid the development of biotechnology and the food and cosmetics industries.

Dynamic breast examination

In one interdisciplinary project in Poland’s R&D sector, Mateusz Moderhak from the Department of Electronics, Telecommunications and Computer Science at the Gdańsk University of Technology is working to develop a modern method to diagnose breast cancer. The method, which employs thermal techniques, can detect cancerous changes several years before they can be identified with standard procedures such as mammography.

When a tumor grows in a breast, the network of blood vessels in the area it occupies expands and the metabolism of cancerous cells is higher than that of healthy tissues around the tumor. The changes alter the distribution of temperature on the skin surface. The different temperatures can be recorded with what is known as a thermographic camera which “sees” temperature.

“Previously only one photograph was taken during an examination and then it was thoroughly analyzed,” says Moderhak. “The results were considerably affected by external factors. What I do is a dynamic breast examination where the breasts get stimulated by a stream of cold air.”

When tissues warm up naturally after cooling, a sequence of thermographs is recorded as a film. The film undergoes computer analysis to create a series of parametrical images such as those obtained in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Tissue stimulation produces images whose appearance depends on the tissue’s internal structure. Previously thermographic diagnostics of breast cancer relied on single images that scientists used to analyze the distribution of temperature on the skin surface while trying to come up with a diagnosis. The examination also employed thermal stimulation such as an air stream from a fan or a cold compress in order to generate a wider contrast between areas with higher and lower thermal activity on the breast. Since these are all single images or very short sequences, computer analysis cannot be performed when the patient is in motion.

“I have adopted a largely new approach in my doctoral dissertation,” says Moderhak. “The examined breast gets cooled to a certain temperature and then the natural temperature restoration is recorded. After the sequence of images is stabilized, an optimization procedure is activated to match model temperature restoration with the restoration sequence obtained in the examination.”

The result is a set of parameters for each spot of the thermographic image, made possible by digital stabilization, which is a completely new technique, Moderhak says. The parameters depend on the thermal properties of tissues located under the skin, including the blood vessels in cancer tissue.

At the current research phase, researchers are trying to understand what they can see on consecutive parametrical images. A growing tumor obtains nutrients by enlarging the local blood vessel network. Cancer tissue is also characterized by higher metabolism compared with tissues around it. Mathematical models assume that the heat produced by increased metabolism is dozens of times higher than that of surrounding tissues, causing the temperature on the skin surface to rise by up to 2 degrees Celsius, depending on the structure, depth and diameter of the tumor.

The method is less efficient for tumors located deeper in the body. Theoretically, by applying low temperature to the skin for long enough, an examiner could try and find cancerous changes deep inside the body, but in practice a number of factors make that difficult, and the strength of stimulation, or cooling, is less important. Moreover, living tissue is a nonlinear object and its thermal activity differs from person to person, leading to more problems.

Moderhak has just started doing research as part of a secondment at the University of Laval in Canada. His research there encompasses 3D imaging, mathematical models, computer simulation, human physiology, thermoregulation processes, cancer etiology, active dynamic thermography, thermal tomography and the acquisition and processing of data from the analysis of transitional processes.

Understanding lactose intolerance

Many people around the world suffer from a disorder known as lactose intolerance, which means an inability to digest lactose, or the sugar in milk. The condition leads to a range of abdominal symptoms.

Katarzyna Grubiak from the Department of Food Chemistry, Technology and Biotechnology at the Gdańsk University of Technology is conducting research on an enzyme that could make lactose harmless to people with lactose intolerance. The enzyme, or biocatalyst, is called beta-galactosidase. It breaks lactose into glucose and galactose, which are monosaccharides. When treated with the enzyme, milk contains less lactose and, consequently, is safe for people with lactose intolerance. It also becomes richer in galacto-oligosaccharides, compounds with therapeutic properties.

In her research, Grubiak is studying the application of thermophilic beta-galactosidase to synthesize saccharides with prebiotic properties. Thermophilic substances are only active at high temperatures of 60-100 degrees Celsius. The right conditions trigger a chemical reaction in which beta-galactosidase turns lactose into priebiotic galacto-oligosaccharides with prebiotic properties.

“Prebiotics are non-digestible substances that pass intact through the upper section of the digestive tract, but then can be fermented by the beneficial microflora of the large intestine, stimulating the bacteria to work and reproduce,” says Grubiak. The growth of the “good” bacteria improves the functioning of the digestive system and helps the body expel toxins and absorb calcium and magnesium more efficiently. This prevents pathogenic microflora from thriving, stimulates immunity to diseases and has a number of other beneficial effects.

Grubiak is considering putting the findings of her research into practice. Her doctoral thesis foresees work with industry, but that will only happen if intellectual property issues are settled, she says. Her experiments encompass a search for new sources of enzymes displaying specific desirable properties. She isolates and purifies selected enzymes, determines their activity and studies their properties. Working with industry, Grubiak can design and refine technological processes that involve enzymatic preparations. She can also design methods to effectively immobilize enzymes on non-soluble carriers and analyze the products of enzymatic transformation.

Innovation transfer

Sylwia Badowska, a postgraduate student at the University of Gdańsk’s Faculty of Management is working on an optimal model for transferring innovation from science to business. The young researcher examines the use of innovative products in the corporate sector, defining the extent of collaboration between businesses and research centers in the northern Pomerania region.

“Poland lacks practical experience in transferring know-how from research and development centers to industry. As a result, the country lags behind the rest of the EU in terms of innovation,” says Badowska. “The ideas currently in use are often based on Western European models, but the specific conditions of the Polish economy and local research and development centers differ radically from the principles governing global models.”

Badowska has surveyed 50 food processing companies in Pomerania province. Since the region specializes in fish and meat production, she has conducted 25 surveys in the fish processing sector and 25 in the meat processing sector. The survey questionnaires were also filled out by 20 researchers dealing with food technology and researchers at local universities, including the University of Gdańsk, the Gdańsk University of Technology, the Gdynia Maritime University, the Medical University of Gdańsk, and the Sea Fisheries Institute. Badowska investigated the experience of researchers who have transferred the results of their research to the food sector. She also tried to find out why other researchers have never had any experience in working with the corporate sector.

Badowska’s research project has involved in-depth interviews with a number of key companies in the food processing sector. Badowska wants to have a better understanding of the processes governing the transfer of innovation and innovative products from science to business.

Piotr Bartosz
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