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Physics Grad Student Wins Award for Skin Cancer Research

Imaging Device Will Help Improve Success Rate of Nonmelanoma Skin Cancer Surgery

Tyler Iorizzo and Assoc. Prof. Anna Yaroslavsky in the lab Photo by Edwin L. Aguirre

Physics doctoral student Tyler Iorizzo and Assoc. Prof. Anna Yaroslavsky operate the optical polarization imager (OPI) at the university’s Advanced Biophotonics Laboratory.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

Tyler Iorizzo, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Physics and Applied Physics, has won international recognition for his contribution in developing an imaging device that could lead to improved diagnosis and treatment of certain skin cancers.

Iorizzo was one of seven university researchers from North America and Europe who received an Educational Award from Edmund Optics, one of the world’s leading suppliers of high-precision optics for the optical industry. 

Iorizzo is part of a team that developed a device called an optical polarization imager, or OPI, that could help doctors identify the margins of nonmelanoma skin cancer prior to surgery, allowing them to remove the malignant tumor with more precision and resulting in less complication and quicker recovery for the patient.

“I’m thrilled and very honored to win this international award,” says Iorizzo, who conducts his research at the university’s Advanced Biophotonics Laboratory. “I’m glad to be able to help people. Imaging with the OPI is completely harmless and noninvasive. It doesn’t use X-ray or high-intensity laser so it’s perfectly safe for the patient and the doctor.”

“Currently, there is no comparable tool available in the market,” says Assoc. Prof. of Physics Anna Yaroslavsky, who is the director and founder of the Advanced Biophotonics Laboratory and inventor of the OPI technology. She is also Iorizzo’s thesis adviser.

“Surgeons basically look at the outline of a cancerous lesion visually and, based on their experience and training, decide where and how much tissue to cut. In many cases, errors can arise because they can’t see the margins of the tumor very well,” she says.

Yaroslavsky says OPI’s rapid, easy-to-use technology produces images that are easy to interpret and don’t require extensive processing to analyze. 


OPI images of the skin
The panel shows normal skin in the top row and cancerous skin in the bottom row. The tumor appears purple in the image taken with the OPI.
“Operating the OPI doesn’t require extensive training and doesn’t disrupt clinical workflow,” she says. “It offers a field of view several centimeters across and tens-of-micron resolution at unparalleled low cost.”

Iorizzo adds that imaging with the OPI is easier for people to tolerate. “The procedure produces better cosmetic outcome and repair of the incision site, as well as lower medical cost,” he says.

Going More than Skin-deep

According to the “American Journal of Preventive Medicine,” nonmelanoma skin cancer (NMSC) is the most common form of cancer in the United States, with about 3 million to 5 million new lesions being diagnosed every year. Approximately 3,000 people die from the disease annually. Statistically, 1 in 4 fair-skinned people may develop NMSC, and the cost of treatment is nearly $5 billion a year.

NMSC refers to types of cancer that occur in the skin that are not melanoma, which primarily affects the pigment-producing melanocyte cells. NMSC includes the common basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma.

The most effective treatment for NMSC usually involves Mohs surgery, in which the cancerous tumor is removed by excising the tissue layer by layer, with each layer examined under a microscope to help map the diseased area. The goal is to completely remove the tumor while preserving as much of the surrounding healthy tissue as possible. While the procedure is effective, it is time-consuming, labor-intensive and costly.

“Tumor boundaries associated with NMSC are difficult to detect based on visual assessment alone,” notes Iorizzo. “This results in inefficient removal of the cancerous tissue, which can lead to recurrence of the tumor.”


Close-up view of the OPI system Photo by Edwin L. Aguirre
The OPI system consists of crossed linear polarizing filters, a high-resolution CCD camera (blue box) and a ring-shaped illuminator for wide-field imaging of the skin. A commercial version is being developed that will be much smaller and more compact than the prototype shown.
The OPI uses a couple of special optical filters (called crossed linear polarizers), a high-resolution CCD camera and a ring-shaped illuminator for wide-field imaging of the skin at resolutions of up to 12 micrometers (millionths of a meter). It utilizes visible light at several wavelengths with polarization to take images of the skin at certain depths to emphasize structures such as collagen, blood vessels and any melanin (pigmented) patches that may be present.

“Our optical imaging system can identify disruptions in the skin’s collagen structure caused by the tumor, allowing for precise in-vivo mapping of the skin cancer before surgery,” Iorizzo says.

Iorizzo’s Silver Prize award consists of $7,500 worth of Edmund Optics products that will be used in the Advanced Biophotonics Lab.

Yaroslavsky has several awarded and pending patents for the OPI. She and her team, which also includes physics Ph.D. students Peter Jermain and Androniki Mitrou, will be applying for industry and federal funding to continue and expand the clinical trials.

“Our goal is to commercialize the technology by licensing it to an existing medical device manufacturer and setting up our own spinoff company. We are working on a prototype right now. The commercial version is going to be much smaller and more compact,” she says.

Aside from skin cancer, the Advanced Biophotonics Lab is also conducting research on breast, brain and kidney cancers in collaboration with Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts General Hospital and UMass Medical School. The researchers’ work is supported by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, the American Society for Laser Medicine & Surgery and the University of Massachusetts.