Cynthia Keppel, a Jefferson staff scientist and director of Hampton University's new Center for Advanced Medical Instrumentation, says although we're in a new millennium we're not quite yet to the tricorder level. Still, the creation of the Center — also known by its acronym CAMI — could lead to development of an unprecedented array of portable, hand-held, non-invasive diagnostic devices based on detector technologies refined at Department of Energy's Jefferson Lab. Keppel traces CAMI's genesis to informal discussion she and JLab Detector Group head Stan Majewski had beginning in the mid-1990s.
"Without the Lab there would be no Center," Keppel contends. "CAMI's existence is largely due to Hampton University partnering with JLab for medical instrumentation [projects]. The Detector Group pushes the state of the art and we leverage that expertise from one field to another. It's not just bouncing radiation off particles. It's understanding the interaction of radiation with matter, human or otherwise."
Such collaborations have led to the development of compact gamma cameras — adaptations of the sensitive gear used in the Lab's experimental halls to detect subatomic particles — that can identify cancerous breast lesions that traditional mammograms have trouble differentiating from healthy breast tissue. The CAMI/JLab partnership has also worked on intraoperative surgical probes for melanoma surgery and a small, stereotactic breast imager that works in conjunction with mammograms to improve identification of suspicious lesions prior to biopsy. That device is currently being evaluated in clinical trials and thus far, based on confirming biopsies, has demonstrated a high success rate in pinpointing what is benign and what is malignant.
Both devices rely on injectable solutions of radiopharmaceuticals, which are drugs that are labeled with radioactive isotopes. As the solution circulates throughout the body, it tends to accumulate in malignant cells. The congregated radiopharmaceuticals emit gamma-rays, which are sensed as light by the devices and then converted into electronic signals that can be rendered as a visible image.
"What we will be looking to do is develop minimally invasive instrumentation," Keppel says. "We want to be able to locate and diagnose cancers more effectively. Everything coming out of the Center, at least in the immediate future, will be focused on finding better ways to locate or image those radiopharmaceuticals."
Eastern Virginia Medical School (EVMS) in Norfolk will be joining with CAMI to establish a graduate program in medical physics. It will be the first such program in Virginia, and the first in the country at an historically black college. Any devices resulting from the collaboration will be evaluated both nationally and in clinical programs conducted at Tidewater-area hospitals.
Keppel is in the process of writing proposals that would fund Center personnel in medical physics, engineering and applied technology. In addition to five students and two part-time administrative assistants, Keppel expects up to 10 individuals from Hampton University, the Lab, and EVMS to staff CAMI. "We pool expertise in one place and we get the word out," she says. "The idea is to become an international resource for medical physics and to invite physicians, companies and patient advocacy groups to partner with us."
Groundbreaking for a new CAMI research facility on campus at Hampton University is scheduled for later this spring. When complete in 2003, the Center will enclose 12,000 square feet in two stories, housing primarily research labs and classrooms, but also some office space. Eventually, outpatient areas may be added.
Additional innovation may lead to hand-held wireless devices that could do away with the thick cables now required for connection and operation. The Trek-like tricorder is not that wild of an idea, Keppel says. It's entirely feasible that, eventually, diagnostic devices could be completely non-invasive. "We have this technology and this knowledge," she says. "We should share it and help people. We can make a difference and, I think, quickly."