Fellows Corner: Sarah Erickson-Bhatt

Sarah Erickson-Bhatt has a personal motivation for making breast cancer diagnoses and procedures less invasive and more accurate.

Before entering college, Sarah Erickson-Bhatt underwent a life-altering event. Her response was to try and make others’ lives better.

Erickson-Bhatt is a Beckman Fellow with a research focus on the development of biomedical applications, specifically toward solving a major problem in breast cancer diagnosis. Currently, performing biopsies for breast cancer diagnoses involves highly invasive procedures such as tissue resection and a wait time for laboratory results that only add to the patient’s worries.

Beckman Institute researcher Stephen Boppart has been working on developing a real-time non-invasive or minimally invasive optical imaging system for breast cancer diagnosis, so it was fitting that Erickson joined him in the effort as one of the newest members of the Beckman Fellows program.

“My current research is focused on optical methods — using visible and near infrared light — in order to distinguish between cancerous and noncancerous tissue,” Erickson-Bhatt said of her work.

Erickson-Bhatt’s research focuses on two major issues involving cancer diagnosis: distinguishing between benign and malignant tissue masses, and between cancerous and healthy tissue during surgical procedures. That twin focus is driven by a single motivation based on that life-changing event.

“I lost my mother to breast cancer and that drew my attention toward the biomedical field,” she said. “As soon as that happened, I decided to apply physics to scientific and engineering methods toward the diagnosis of breast cancer.”

Erickson-Bhatt got a degree at the University of South Florida in physics, then went on to earn a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering at Florida International. It was there that she did postdoctoral work developing a handheld optical imaging device for imaging breast cancer non-invasively.

Boppart has been pursuing the same goal for a decade now using optical coherence tomography (OCT). Erickson-Bhatt applied to the Beckman Fellows program in order to work with Boppart as her main collaborator.

While both the method she worked on at Florida International and Boppart’s technique involve optical imaging, Erickson says they are different approaches.

“The methods are very different actually,” she said. “What I worked on was diffuse optical where you can go deeper into the tissue, whereas OCT — what I’m now doing in Steve’s lab — can only image 1, maybe 2 mm, into the tissue. So it’s used intraoperatively.”

That means surgeons will be able to image tissue during a procedure without having to send a tissue sample off to a lab for further analysis. In that aspect, the approaches of Erickson-Bhatt and Boppart are very much in tune.

“This enables the surgeon to know when he’s removing breast tumor what part is tumor and what part is normal tissue,” she said. “By using a method like optical coherence tomography the surgeon can then determine how much tissue to remove and also determine if lymph nodes are positive or negative for cancer.”

The Beckman Fellows program enables postdoctoral researchers time to do research free of teaching or other duties.

“Being free of those other duties really helps me be able to focus on research and be able to think creatively and innovatively to do the kind of research that I am excited and passionate about,” she said.

Erickson-Bhatt worked in Boppart’s labs at Beckman with his research group members and used a lab at Carle Hospital’s Mills Breast Cancer Institute in getting a portable OCT system ready for clinical trials. Those trials got under way in January with patients at Carle Hospital in Urbana.

Erickson-Bhatt is part of the 2012 class of Fellows, arriving at Beckman in August. Her future plans are to become a tenured professor with her own research program after her days as a Beckman Fellow are done. However, there is one thing she hopes to accomplish before leaving the program: having the technology proven as an effective intraoperative tool for surgeons.

“Many times they have to have follow-up surgeries, but if, during the procedure, they can use a method to determine whether or not it is cancer, that is what I want to see happen,” she said.

This article is part of the Winter 2013 Synergy Issue, a publication of the Communications Office of the Beckman Institute.