When Stephen Boppart was growing up in Harvard, Ill., his father, an agricultural engineering graduate from the University of Illinois, would bring home broken motors, engines, and mechanical devices for his son to take apart, figure out what was broken, and then attempt to fix them.
“I wasn’t very successful at fixing them,” said Boppart, “but I learned to always think about how things work, and how I could solve problems in engineering.”
These early experiences proved formative for Boppart’s education and research career. He graduated from the U of I in 1990 with a bachelor’s in electrical engineering and an option in bioengineering. He completed his master’s in electrical and computer engineering (ECE) in 1991, also at Illinois. He cites his master’s thesis advisor, former faculty member Bruce Wheeler, as an academic mentor.
“He introduced me to bioengineering research as an undergraduate student and virtually gave me open access to his labs and equipment,” said Boppart. “From him, I learned that a lab can be a playground, and that the tinkering I enjoyed as a child could continue the rest of my life in academia, where solutions to engineering challenges could have a significant impact on people’s lives.”
From 1991 to 1993, at the Air Force Laser Laboratory in San Antonio, Texas, he conducted research on laser-tissue interactions in the eye, helping establish national laser safety standards. At Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), he received his Ph.D. in 1998 in medical and electrical engineering. His doctoral studies included the development of optical coherence tomography (OCT) in the laboratory of Jim Fujimoto, who Boppart also credits as a guide.
“He mentored me to excel in academic research, to develop strategies for success, and to develop independent skills that carried over to managing my own independent lab and research.”
As part of a joint program between MIT and Harvard, Boppart completed his M.D. from Harvard Medical School in June 2000.
"[As an undergrad at Illinois,] I learned that a lab can be a playground, and that the tinkering I enjoyed as a child could continue the rest of my life in academia, where solutions to engineering challenges could have a significant impact on people’s lives.”
“I was fascinated by the electrical properties of living cells (neurons), and the analogies between electrical circuits in hardware and in the brain,” said Boppart. “At MIT and Harvard, while developing the new optical biomedical imaging technology OCT, I realized that I needed to understand what I was imaging with this technique, and so I combined my interests in optics and imaging with medicine and biology. Now, I continue to focus on how engineering and technology can advance medicine and surgery, as well as enable new fundamental biological discoveries.”
At Illinois, Boppart holds appointments in the Departments of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Bioengineering, and is affiliated with the Department of Internal Medicine in the College of Medicine, the Micro- and Nanotechnology Laboratory, and the Institute for Genomic Biology. At the Beckman Institute, Boppart co-chairs, along with Zhi-Pei Liang, the Integrative Imaging theme and heads the Biophotonics Imaging Laboratory. He is also the director of Imaging at Illinois, a campuswide effort to build community around imaging science, imaging technology, and the application, use, and interpretation of pictures and images.
As part of his research at Beckman, Boppart has helped to translate optical imaging technologies into new clinical tools, such as OCT, an imaging technique useful for medical diagnostics. Improvements include the intraoperative detection and removal of tumors at the cellular level. Similar in operation to ultrasound, OCT works by focusing a beam of near-infrared light (like that used in CD players) noninvasively into tissue and measuring the intensity and position of the resulting reflections.
Working across disciplines is integral to Boppart’s work. “My work is truly reflective of what Beckman was intended for,” said Boppart. He collaborates with others in fields ranging from chemistry, physics, medicine, biology, physiology, and engineering.
Boppart is also envisioning what the future may hold.
“I believe we can use our advanced optical technologies and imaging methods to answer new questions in neuroscience (neurophotonics), as well as understanding the optics and optical principles employed in natural systems and organisms,” said Boppart. “In addition to these new pursuits, I see my current research having a greater impact in human clinical medicine and surgery where we are using label-free optical imaging technologies to detect microscopic cellular and even molecular disease markers during breast cancer surgery, or more effectively screening for early disease in primary care medicine.”
The technologies that Boppart has created use the intrinsic properties of the tissue in the imaging; “label-free” means that no dyes or contrasts are used in the process, lessening the risk of adverse reactions and allowing the technology to be used immediately in a clinical setting.
Boppart, along with colleague P. Scott Carney, has developed a new optical medical imaging technology called Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Microscopy (ISAM), which uses near-infrared light to create high-resolution images of breast cancer cells invading normal tissue. It is the first technology of its kind to be used during surgery to determine whether all of a tumor has been successfully removed. A clinical commercial prototype of the portable, handheld probe and imaging system—built by Diagnostic Photonics, Inc., a start-up company co-founded by Boppart and Carney—is currently in the testing stage at Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana. The goal is to reduce the high rate of repeat surgeries for those with breast cancer. Diagnostic Photonics was recently awarded a $2.3 million Small Business Innovation Research grant from the National Institutes of Health to begin multi-site clinical trials at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Md., and the Anne Arundel Medical Center in Annapolis, Md. Full FDA approval is expected in 2013 with a product launch expected as early as 2015.
Through research in the Biophotonics Imaging Lab, Boppart has continued to pursue research around other OCT devices, which hold promise in diagnosing and treating various diseases including diabetic retinopathy, chronic ear infections, thyroid cancer, and multiple sclerosis.
“I believe the field of biophotonics and biomedical optics will continue to permeate more and more research areas in the next five to 10 years, including neuroscience, infectious disease, and cancer detection, as well as intravital imaging, where one can image and track the dynamics of single cells in living organisms,” Boppart predicts. “Light provides a unique opportunity to probe and image at the molecular and cellular level, which has applications not only for biology, but also for clinical medicine and surgery.”
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