Innovation helps turn rocket science into cancer-treating tool

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Technology used in rocket science may soon be used in the treatment of breast cancer thanks to a UVU professor.

Timothy Doyle, an assistant physics professor at UVU, has turned experience from ATK Thiokol into applicable techniques to use in cancer surgery. Currently, surgeons aren’t able to estimate specifically the amount of tissue to remove in addition to the cancer. They must instead conduct lombectomies, during which they remove the lump and two millimeters around the area. Several lombectomies are performed for cancer patients to ensure the complete removal of the malignant tissue and at times, the whole breast must be removed.

However, the technology Doyle has worked on since 2004 will allow surgeons to be more specific in the removal of the cancer.

“The whole idea is so the surgeon can know how much to take out and nothing more,” Doyle said.

Doyle was working at ATK Thiokol, an aerospace company, when his wife was diagnosed with cancer. The doctors told her it was terminal and she would have a year to live. However, they discovered through other doctors and several clinical trials the cancer wasn’t what they thought.

She later recovered, but the issue became personal. Doyle was working with rockets and technology that could predict the microscopic structure of rocket propellant. The connection seemed simple to him.

“I thought, well this could be applied to human tissue,” Doyle said.

Doyle’s knowledge of rocket propellant cells translated into molecular study of human tissue. He began development of technology that would map the cancer area and analyze how much tissue has been infected.  With help from Dr. Leigh Neumayer, a surgeon at the Huntsman Cancer Center, the theory was translated into application.

As opposed to waiting a few days or weeks to know if the cancer is gone, doctors will be able to know within minutes if more tissue needs to be removed.

“It’s more like using the ultrasound as an analytical tool to determine what tissue is there,” Doyle said.

What’s even more unique about Doyle’s research is the participants. Doyle worked with several undergraduate students in the process of this technology. From the publication in a cancer research journal, to patent licensing on the technology, Doyle has had students every step of the way.

Matthew Grover, a junior from Roosevelt studying physics at UVU, helped Doyle build mathematical models. These models improve the accuracy of the machine’s predictions. He said the work he has done with Doyle has been a rare and rewarding opportunity.

“Without this, I really wouldn’t have gained an understanding or knowledge of physics,” Grover said.

As a result of FDA processes and approvals, these new methods may not be available anywhere between five and 10 years.

Doyle said he is excited this new technology will not only be faster but more affordable as well. Without so many return visits, patients will be able to be rid of the cancer quicker and at less of a hit to their wallet.  Neumayer said this is also thanks to the level at which the surgeons will be dealing with the cancer.

“The naked eye and the finger can only differentiate so far,” Dr. Neumayer said. “We’re talking on the cellular level.”

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