Pfister and Bresler earn Yang Award for research on objects' composition

7/9/2015 Daniel Dexter, ECE ILLINOIS

The idea of alleviating cancer patients of biopsies is one of the driving forces in Luke Pfister's research of chemical and structural makeup of substances.

Written by Daniel Dexter, ECE ILLINOIS

One of the first steps in cancer detection is a necessary but highly invasive procedure called a biopsy, which subjects patients to having a portion of their skin tissue removed for examination.

Luke Pfister
Luke Pfister

“People don’t want these big chunks of them drilled out,” graduate student Luke Pfister said. “So what we would be able to do is come up with the same diagnosis without having to extract any tissue.”

The idea of alleviating cancer patients of this procedure is one of the driving forces in Pfister’s research of chemical and structural makeup of substances. Assisting him on the project are Professors Yoram Bresler and Paul Scott Carney and Bioengineering Professor Rohit Bhargava.

In order to analyze the location and amount of the molecules in an object through a process called optical coherence tomography (OCT), one must assume that the chemical composition is the same throughout.

On the other hand, a researcher can’t observe the chemical makeup of an object through a method called vibrational spectroscopy with without first assuming that there is an even amount and distribution of molecules its structure. As result, a researcher can’t study both the chemical and structural makeup at the same time because the assumptions contradict each other.

“The problem is that if you try to get rid of these two assumptions and have something that you can get both chemical and structural information out, the math and the computations that you need become far too expensive to do using current techniques,” graduate student Luke Pfister said. “It would take 100 years to do these computations.”

Yoram Bresler
Yoram Bresler

Pfister is attempting to solve this problem by coming up with an algorithm that would make it possible to see both the chemical and structural composition of the object.

He and Bresler, his adviser, were awarded the Andrew T. Yang Research Award, which will provide a fellowship for Pfister and will cover research expenses. Yang (MS ’86, PhD ’89) established the award in 2013 to support risky projects that could eventually become commercially viable.

“This is really something that enables us to lift this project off the ground without getting external funding for which we will eventually apply. This will help us produce some initial results,” Bresler said.

Carney introduced the idea, and he's looking at the issue from an optics perspective. The bulk of Pfister’s and Bresler’s work will be from the mathematical and theoretical angles. Although it is unlikely they will have a chance to work directly with cancer patients, Pfister is working with tissue samples from Bhargava’s lab.

In order to develop his algorithm, Pfister plans to use structural assumptions and mathematical tricks developed by Professor Zhi-Pei Liang for MRI. However, first he will need to start collecting data through compressed sensing.

Through compressed sensing, Pfister is able to acquire necessary data more efficiently because he is able to extract information he needs from the data set without having to go analyze each sample. This method is possible because there is some knowledge of what the chemical compounds of the objects are, but the location and amount of the molecules is still unknown. 

Paul Scott Carney
Paul Scott Carney

He is currently working with one-dimensional samples, but will eventually move to three-dimensional ones before finally analyzing the data without any knowledge of what the chemical makeup of what the object will be. He said the process should take about two years.

Despite years of work ahead of him, Pfister is confident he will be able to succeed because of the support he is receiving, especially from the three professors assisting him: Bresler, Carney, and Bhargava.

“We have three different professors from three different disciplines working on this project, all of whom have a unique perspective,” Pfister said. “The breadth of expertise is really helping make this research possible.”

Pfister gave a brief presentation at a reception this spring honoring Yang and his research award recipients, who also include graduate student Paul Froeter and Associate Professor Xiuling Li.

Yang said his goal in establishing the award was to urge ECE ILLINOIS researchers to do novel work that more traditional funding organizations might not be willing to sponsor.

The result, he hopes, will change lives.

“We’ve seen a creation of hope, not just a creation of papers,” Yang said at the event.

Share this story

This story was published July 9, 2015.