It seemed destined. Just about the time that Michael Walsh was scouting around in his native England for postdoctoral research opportunities, applications were being accepted for the position of the first-ever Carle Foundation Hospital-Beckman Institute Fellow.
Walsh, who has a Ph.D. in Biological Sciences from Lancaster University, has a research interest in biomedical applications, with a particular focus on using chemical information toward advancing imaging technology for disease diagnosis. That is also a focus of Beckman faculty member Rohit Bhargava, who Walsh called in February of 2008 as part of his search.
“He really is in the forefront in imaging for biomedical applications,” Walsh said of Bhargava. “He had heard of me from my Ph.D. Then he said, ‘oh there is this fellowship coming up between Beckman and Carle and I think you would be really well-suited for it.’ I looked on the Beckman Web site and as soon as I looked at it, I said ‘oh, this sounds perfect for what I am interested in.’ It was perfect.”
Walsh applied and soon won the position, joining the Beckman Fellows Program in August of 2008. While the position seemed to be a perfect fit, Walsh also wanted to experience working at an interdisciplinary research center like Beckman.
“The other thing is I was really attracted by Beckman, in particular the interdisciplinary aspect of it,” Walsh said. “I had never run across anything like it in England, where you have a building just for cross collaboration research. For this type of research, using biophotonics with biomedical applications, you really need a lot of threads. We’ve got the engineers, the biologists, the mathematicians, really everything in one building, which is really unique.”
The new position was launched in 2008 with funding from Carle Foundation Hospital and the Beckman Institute in order to give recent Ph.D.s a postdoctoral/pre-career opportunity to do independent, interdisciplinary, cancer-related translational research. Walsh will serve as the Carle-Beckman Fellow until Aug. of 2011. As with other Beckman Fellows, Walsh will have no teaching or administrative duties, jut a chance to focus full-time on his area of research.
Walsh said his goal as the Carle-Beckman Fellow is to eventually add a new diagnostic approach to the fight against disease, especially cancer.
“Essentially I’m developing an imaging approach which, instead of looking down a microscope, is actually taking the chemistry into account,” Walsh said. “So we can measure things like proteins, lipids, DNA, RNA, phosphate, all these sort of things.”
Walsh’s initial efforts in the position involve doing evaluations of clinical tissue using chemical imaging and data analysis methods, not just toward improving cancer diagnoses but also prognoses.
As part of that effort, Walsh is looking at whether predictions of future cancer recurrence can be made for patients who have had a tumor removed. Walsh said that prostate cancer patients, for example, will have the cancer removed, be treated, and then have a recurrence of cancer at the primary site within five to 15 years.
“No one knows why but there is some biological basis as to why this patient is going to have a recurrence of cancer,” Walsh said. “Some biologists have shown in some preliminary work that there are some chemical changes in that original tumor which you cannot tell by standard methods but which will predict whether someone is going to have a recurrence.”
What Walsh wants to do is incorporate chemical information from the tumor into imaging methods in order to make predictions about future cancer growth and treat the patient accordingly. He is starting his project by analyzing imaging data from cancer patients at various clinical locations.
“Of the patients, half had the tumor removed and they are fine; 15 years later they are cancer-free,” he said. “The other half, who have had the exact same treatment, the exact same age, they have a recurrence of cancer. There is something unique about these patients, something unique about their original tumor. No one had analyzed this with biophotonics yet.”
This is where Walsh hopes the method he is developing will prove useful.
“What has been shown is that this chemical information – DNA, protein, – is altered between different cell types or between different disease states,” he said. “We can get a lot more information, much more quickly, and cheaper than conventional approaches.”
Walsh hopes to eventually set up a research lab at Carle’s Mills Breast Cancer Institute and expand on his studies. His long-term goals are to continue his research work as a professor, and eventually integrate the technology he is developing into clinical settings.
As the Carle-Beckman Fellow, Walsh is also getting a taste of what it is like to supervise young researchers for the first time. He has three undergraduate students who are helping with his research.
“It’s been really quite nice to mentor undergrads,” Walsh said. “And they are really quite smart as well. They’ve all got distinct projects, so being able to give that out to them has been really nice because there is not enough time in the day literally.”