Fan Lam earns NSF CAREER award for enhanced brain mapping technology

2/24/2020 Susan McKenna

Bioengineering Assistant Professor Fan Lam has earned a National Science Foundation CAREER award for his ultra-high-resolution, label-free, enhanced MRI technology to generate better information on brain function and anatomy, better diagnoses, and better treatments of brain diseases.

Written by Susan McKenna

Fan Lam's enhanced magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) research has earned him a National Science Foundation CAREER award and more than $500,000 to support his project, “Ultrahigh-Resolution Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopic Imaging for Label-Free Molecular Imaging of the Brain."

As a researcher and assistant professor in Bioengineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Lam is developing advanced MRI technology to study the brain — how it functions, how it is affected by central nervous system disorders, and how to better detect and treat those diseases.

Lam and his research group are creating enhanced imaging tools to study molecular-level activities in the human brain noninvasively, without using contrast agents, and in a way that allows scientists to "see information beyond anatomy and neuronal activation," he said. They are working to advance the MRI's capability of imaging molecules in the brain to generate more information and in greater detail than previously available.

"Our goal is to develop a new generation of imaging technologies to enable the visualization of another level of information in the brain non-invasively that are the molecular-level activities — using a unique modality called magnetic resonance spectroscopic imaging (MRSI)," he said.

Lam expects his CAREER award project to help detect diseases of the brain at an earlier stage, before they have progressed too far, and to better assess the efficacy of treatments.

"For many brain diseases, it is often at a late stage when you start to see macroscopic structural changes, or 'lesions,'" Lam said. "... For many clinical treatments, the earlier and the more specific clinicians can see the changes caused by the treatments — for example, biochemical and metabolic responses to treatments — the more effective they can be at managing the diseases. That is what we hope to provide by developing new MRSI technologies."

Lam, who earned his Ph.D. in Electrical and Computer Engineering at Illinois and joined the Illinois faculty in 2018, said he first became interested in this line of research while working as a doctoral student with his advisor, Zhi-Pei Liang, a Franklin W. Woeltge Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Illinois. Liang had worked with the late Nobel Laureate Paul Lauterbur, "who envisioned the possibility of fast, high-resolution MRSI," said Lam. "I remembered Zhi-Pei told me that this is really an unplowed field and has lots of potential ... so that was the start."

The ultimate goals of this research are to develop next-generation, label-free imaging tools that can be translated from the lab to the clinic. By using MRSI to map the molecular profiles in the brain, the technology is expected to advance the study of brain function and generate more effective diagnosis and treatment of brain diseases and disorders.

Lam said he feels fortunate "to work with many brilliant researchers" in the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology and across disciplines throughout the University of Illinois.

"I am blessed to have the mentorship, support and help from my home department, Bioengineering," he said, "and several senior colleagues around campus, without whom this award would not be possible."

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This story was published February 24, 2020.