BIOE researchers awarded $2.4 million, developing imaging to detect microvascular changes in diabetic patients

12/1/2019 Miranda Holloway

Professors Mike Insana and Wawosz Dobrucki are leading a new NIH-supported project to create better imaging techniques for earlier detection of diabetes-caused diseases

Written by Miranda Holloway

A group of Bioengineering professors at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign are partnering with other researchers on campus and at the Mayo Clinic to develop sensitive, low-cost imaging technologies for detecting microvascular changes in diabetic patients.

Professors Michael Insana and Wawrzyniec Dobrucki are leading the project titled, “Ultrasonic perfusion imaging of peripheral vascular disease,” which is supported by a four-year, $2.4 million grant from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute at the National Institutes of Health. The new imaging technique would offer a less-invasive option for diagnosing diseases caused by type 2 diabetes — like peripheral arterial disease — and be able to diagnose them earlier.

“Most of the patients, when they come to the doctor with, for example, peripheral arterial disease, don't come for the peripheral artery disease. They come with some other cardiovascular problems,” Dobrucki said. “Very often this process is so advanced that there are not really good therapeutic interventions. These issues usually require surgery.”

People with peripheral vascular arterial disease tend to visit the doctor with leg pain or numb feet. Doctors then give an injection to monitor the blood flow through the arteries. Detecting microvascular changes this way can be invasive and are not always very specific in their findings

 “We figured out a very specific, very inexpensive, and non-invasive method,” Insana said “As long as you have an ultrasound machine, which is fairly inexpensive, you can track people over time.”

The team is combining low-cost ultrasound and optical technologies for perfusion imaging, with highly specific PET, SPECT and MRI to image neovascularization, metabolism and oxygenation. The objective is to discover the sequence of mechanisms inducing vascular changes that occur in diabetic patients.

The team's method also allows patients to be more proactive in their health. In the future, the project also may include a psychiatric element to help individuals with an early stage of the disease make life changes. With early detection and low-cost imaging, if patients make changes to their lifestyle after diagnosis, they can see how their lifestyle influences the disease.

“Ideally the research or imaging technologies will translate to clinical practice and change the behavior of the patient,” Dobrucki said. “The patient will be motivated more to exercise, to stop smoking, to improve their quality of life.”

The project started because of the interdisciplinary nature of the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, where both Insana and Dobrucki have offices and labs.

Insana is a Donald Biggar Willett Professor in Engineering in the Department of Bioengineering at Illinois, and he leads the Ultrasonic Imaging Laboratory in the Beckman Institute. Dobrucki is an associate professor and director of the Master of Engineering programs in Bioengineering, and he leads the Experimental Molecular Imaging Laboratory, also at the Beckman Institute.

“I would say that this wouldn't happen without Beckman," Insana said. “We have an imaging center in Beckman, and those resources were vital for us getting started and to be able to move on from that. It's also very important that this collegial environment in Beckman enables collaboration without any barriers.”

Along with the specialties that both Insana and Dobrucki bring to the table, at various points in the project they also will be working with Bioengineering Professor Brad Sutton, Veterinary Medicine Professor Heidi Phillips, and collaborators at the Mayo Clinic, including Radiologist Azra Alizad, a co-lead on the research.

“I think it’s a success that that we came up with this project; it’s been funded, and we’ve been able to build a very strong team of people with expertise spanning from basic science up to the clinical science,” Dobrucki said.

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This story was published December 1, 2019.