6/18/19 Ji-Xin Cheng, Lu Lan

Ji-Xin Cheng, a world leader in optics and photonics, and graduate student Lu Lan pose for photo in September 2018.

A Purdue University-affiliated company developing a surgical tool shown to pinpoint breast cancer tumors so they can be removed faster and more accurately and reduce the need for repeat surgeries in nearly a quarter of all lumpectomies has received a National Science Foundation grant for $703,352.

Vibronix Inc. received a Small Business Innovation Research grant to advance the new technology called AcouStar, according to a news release. The company was founded by Ji-Xin Cheng, a professor of biomedical engineering and electrical and computer engineering at Boston University, who was formerly at Purdue, and Pu Wang, the company CEO, who received his doctorate from Purdue’s Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering.

Most people diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer choose either a lumpectomy, also known as breast-conserving surgery, or a mastectomy. Numerous studies have found similar survival rates for lumpectomies and mastectomies, according to the Susan G. Komen organization.

The problem for surgeons performing lumpectomies is that some tumors are so small they are hard to detect because they can’t be felt by hand. A study published in JAMA Oncology in 2017 found that 23.6 percent of breast cancer patients who underwent surgery needed a repeat surgery soon afterward because microscopic examination found that trace cancer cells were left behind.

Before surgery, doctors often insert a thin wire into a tumor to help guide them. But even with that guide, it is often difficult for the surgeon to locate the tumor because the tip of the wire is hard to find.

Using AcouStar, a doctor would use ultrasound or a mammogram to insert a carbon fiber-delivered optoacoustic emitter into the tumor. AcouStar sends nanosecond flashes of laser light that are then converted into sound. A detector is attached to the breast to locate the tip in the tumor using acoustic radar. The surgeon wears smart glasses that use augmented reality to see exactly where the tumor is. 

“The guide wire is like a beacon and able to help surgeons locate the tumor in a real-time manner,” Wang said in the release. “The surgeon already has a plan on how to remove the tumor. They must be sure where it is. This technology helps them.”

Vibronix officials believe AcouStar will cut the costs of breast cancer surgery because doctors will be able to find the tumors more quickly and a second surgery won’t be needed as often. It also means less physical pain and distress for patients.

“AcouStar can effectively reduce the surgical delay and potentially minimize the re-excision rate,” Wang said. “Moreover, this innovative technology will not only be applicable for breast cancer surgery navigation, it may also be used as an internal tracking device for multiple other applications, such as implantable device tracking, endoscope tracking, navigation for partial kidney removal and other procedures.”

The NSF made the grant through a Phase II SBIR grant, also known as America’s Seed Fund. It is one of the largest sources of early-stage capital for technology commercialization in the country.

The funding will be used for research and development of the technology, which is patented through the Purdue Research Foundation’s Office of Technology Commercialization, Wang said.

Vibronix, which is based in the Purdue Research Park of West Lafayette, also has raised $1.7 million in investments from private sector and is looking to raise another $2 million to further develop the technology as it works to develop a wireless version of AcouStar.

The advantage of wireless is that the energy source can be placed in the tumor the day before the surgery, making it less stressful on the medical team and the patient. Vibronix also is looking for a partner to further develop the technology. 

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