Ling Meng earned a Ph.D. by changing his research focus from outer space to the inner workings of the human body, turning detector technology developed for satellite missions into something useful for medical applications.
As a researcher at the University of Illinois and the Beckman Institute, Meng continues to seek out new applications in the field of nuclear medicine. He is currently developing future generation nuclear (or radiological) imaging systems that could be used, for example, to detect cancer at scales and at resolutions that enable truly effective treatments.
Meng earned a Ph.D. in Detector Physics at the University of London, starting off in astrophysics before his advisor changed research directions, leading Meng on a path he continues to tread today. He works to develop novel radiation imaging sensors and application-specific imaging systems such as single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) and positron emission tomography (PET).
For Meng, it was more than a research or career decision.
“I wanted to make a real difference in the world, in people’s lives,” Meng said. “I had this idea from the very beginning: to help people diagnose cancer. Even today, this is my primary desire.”
And that motivation is deeply rooted.
“I have family, direct relatives getting cancer, actually quite a few in my family,” he added. “So it’s very personal for me. I thought I have to somehow do something to help people diagnose cancer.
“So that’s probably driven my own research in nuclear engineering. I could do so many different things but, I said ‘I am not going to focus on anything else; I will just focus on developing instruments for cancer diagnosis.’”
A native of China, Meng is an Associate Professor in the Department of Nuclear, Plasma and Radiological Engineering, and a member of the Bioimaging Science and Technology group at Beckman. He works to make room-temperature semiconductor materials and complementary readout electronics for future radiation sensors, creates designs of future nuclear imaging systems, and combines multiple imaging modalities into a system with capabilities not found with current technologies.
In one project, Meng is working with Beckman’s Biomedical Imaging Center.
“One of our projects is to develop a high-performance SPECT system that can operate inside MRI scanners, so it will let people make use of the strengths of both of those modalities,” Meng said.
By adapting a traditional technique to more modern systems, Meng wants to optimize the powerful capabilities such as greater sensitivity found with nuclear imaging. Nuclear imaging is a field that some have turned away from in recent years.
“I am fully aware of the limitations of this technique,” Meng said. “So, I thought that part of my duty is to find a way of dramatically improving the performance, and putting them into the new era of imaging. We are trying to reshape this field by providing some dramatically new instruments and bringing them into this particular research area.”
Meng said they are constructing a full-size MRC-SPECT system and expect to have it ready this fall. They are also constructing a prototype PET system that would enable high-resolution PET images inside an MR scanner.
“I’m among very few faculty members in this department to rely on NIH grants,” Meng said. “I want to get this message out: I think we are in the position to reshape this field. I want to broadcast that message to not only people who do not know this field, but also to colleagues; some of my colleagues are moving away and they are being pessimistic, but what I would say is that by using new radiation sensor technology, you can bring this modality back to life again in the mainstream.”
Meng said the technology he is working on could lead to future nuclear imaging systems used alongside other modalities, and potentially for early detection of diseases other than cancer, like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and diabetes. The overall mission is making the best use of nuclear imaging technology, in service of Meng’s larger motivation.
“The bigger picture of what I do is to reshape and consolidate nuclear imaging as a direct, highly sensitive non-invasive technique for visualizing various diseases deep inside living objects,” he said.