UC Researchers Awarded NIH Grant for Liver Cancer Treatment

By:    Brandon Pytel
Date: June 5, 2018

NIH recently awarded a team of UC researchers a $1.87 million grant for their work using ultrasound imaging to monitor thermal ablation treatments of liver cancer.

Mast Headshot

Biomedical engineering professor T. Douglas Mast, PhD, is principal investigator of the NIH grant to study liver cancer treatments.

The American Cancer Society predicts that over 42,000 new cases of liver cancer will be diagnosed in 2018 alone. Worldwide, liver cancer accounts for over 600,000 deaths each year. And for most patients, surgically removing a liver tumor is out of the question.

“Liver cancer is a highly prevalent, highly deadly cancer that requires minimally invasive techniques to treat,” said T. Douglas Mast, PhD, professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Cincinnati (UC).

Mast and his team at UC were recently awarded the National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant, “Monitoring and control of human liver cancer ablation using real-time 3D echo decorrelation imaging.” The grant is approximately $1.87 million over five years.

One of the minimally invasive liver cancer treatments is thermal ablation, where surgeons heat a tumor in place using radio-frequency or microwave energy. Surgeons insert an antenna into the tumor and emit electromagnetic energy that raises the temperature of the tumor until the cells die.

“It essentially cooks the tumor,” said Mast, principal investigator of the research.

Thermal ablation of liver cancer, though generally successful, is difficult to monitor. That is where Mast and his team come in. The research team uses traditional ultrasound image data to track and map changes in echoes from tissue during ablation. This is called echo decorrelation imaging.

Echo decorrelation imaging may allow researchers to predict the success of thermal ablation treatments, determining a temperature threshold that ensures the tumor's death. Having an accurate tracking method like this can potentially reduce local tumor reoccurrence, decrease potential complications and ultimately improve outcomes for liver cancer patients.

two images of liver: one showing thermal ablation, one showing liver.

Above: image of echo decorrelation during thermal ablation of swine liver. Below: cross-section of ablated tissue of liver.

The team has already shown that echo decorrelation imaging predicts thermal ablation success in a rabbit model of liver cancer. “We showed that echo decorrelation gives you a reasonably good prediction of where the tissue is successfully treated and where it is not,” said Mast.

The next step in the research is to monitor liver cancer ablation using 3-D echo decorrelation imaging.

“If you want to monitor the progress and the whole volume at once, you need 3-D imaging to be able to look at any position of the tumor at any given time,” said Mast.

Researchers will use 3-D imaging to create a ball several centimeters in diameter that mimics the size of a tumor. This model allows them to study the effects of thermal ablation on all parts of the tumor, rather than the limited scope of traditional ultrasound images.

The NIH grant will allow the team to test echo decorrelation imaging of patients undergoing thermal ablation for liver tumors at the UC Medical Center. If all goes as planned, Mast hopes clinical adoption of this technology will begin within three to five years. Once that happens, cancer patients will reap the benefits of safer and more effective liver tumor treatments.

The research team consists of the following investigators: T. Douglas Mast (biomedical engineering); Syed Ahmad and Shimul Shah (surgery); Kyuran Ann Choe, Ross Ristagno and Seetharam Chadalavada (radiology); Jiang Wang (pathology); and Marepalli Rao (environmental health).