Synchrotron shines light on prostate cancer

Trinita Barboza

Veterinary student Trinita Barboza is part of a multidisciplinary team imaging canine and human prostates using the University of Saskatchewan’s synchrotron. Photo: Christina Weese.

University of Saskatchewan researchers are pioneering the use of synchrotron technology to study prostate cancer in humans and dogs.

The dog serves as a good model for the study of human prostate disease because it’s the only animal known to spontaneously develop prostate cancer with advancing age.

Using the Canadian Light Source (CLS) synchrotron at the U of S, Trinita Barboza, a second-year U of S veterinary medicine student, is part of a multidisciplinary team investigating the best technique for imaging canine and human prostates.

“We hope to discover early indicators of prostate cancer by correlating what we see on synchrotron images with what we see using conventional imaging methods such as ultrasound, computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI),” says Barboza.

“Earlier detection allows for more timely and effective treatment,” stresses Dr. Elisabeth Snead, a professor with the Western College of Veterinary Medicine.

Barboza’s work is supervised by Snead and Murray Pettitt, a research associate at the U of S college of agriculture and bioresources.

Images of normal (C, E) and cancerous (A, B, D) canine prostate obtained by photography, ultrasonography (U/S, arrows delineate prostate), computed X-ray tomography (CT) and diffraction-enhanced imaging (DEI). Images courtesy of the U of S prostate cancer research team.

prostate images

Images of normal (C, E) and cancerous (A, B, D) canine prostate obtained by photography, ultrasonography (U/S, arrows delineate prostate), computed X-ray tomography (CT) and diffraction-enhanced imaging (DEI). Images courtesy of the U of S prostate cancer research team.

The team is at the stage where they’re trying to determine how to image details within the prostate gland. “That’s never been done before, here or anywhere else with a synchrotron,” says Pettitt.

The synchrotron is a source of brilliant light produced by using radio frequency waves and powerful magnets to accelerate electrons. This light can be used to study many physical, chemical and biological processes in plants, animals and humans.

The team uses the CLS’s biomedical imaging and therapy beamline to create high energy X-rays that can image prostate tissue in immense detail.

“The synchrotron offers a unique way of seeing things,” says Dean Chapman, scientific leader of the beamline and Canada Research Chair in X-ray Imaging. “It’s unlike any other imaging tool. We’re able to look at things at the micron level with very high resolution.”

Barboza collects and prepares prostate tissue—both canine and human—for imaging, runs the imaging program at the synchrotron, performs computer-based reconstruction of these images, and helps with the CT and ultrasound imaging. She also organizes the team’s shifts at the synchrotron.

She has participated in many back-to-back shifts at the synchrotron this summer that can add up to 16 hours at a time. While these days can be very long and grueling, the results are rewarding.

“It’s very gratifying when I finish reconstructing an image and I send it out to the team members and everyone gets so excited,” she says.

As synchrotron sciences are a new frontier in science, Barboza often needs to get creative to ensure effective imaging. “I’m creating little custom-made contraptions all the time,” she says. For example, the prostate tissue must be kept suspended and still in its container to properly image it.

Working with a multidisciplinary team has been another fascinating aspect of the research: “Everyone has their own specialty and they all want to teach each other and learn from one another,” she says.

“One of the things the synchrotron is extraordinarily good at doing is bringing together people from different disciplines,” adds Chapman. “You really need the engineers, physicists, and medical experts to pull this stuff off.”

Interested in pursuing a career in research, Barboza is glad to have had the opportunity to contribute to the advancement of both animal and human health using this state-of-the-art facility.

“It’s amazing how much the synchrotron can do,” she says. “Our project uses only a small portion of it. There are so many other researchers doing so many different things with this harnessed energy.”

Funders for the project include the Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation and Motorcycle Ride for Dad, an organization that raises funds to support prostate cancer research.

Robyn Thrasher, a third-year veterinary student, was a summer student intern with the WCVM research communications and U of S research communications offices.

This article first ran as part of the 2012 Young Innovators series, an initiative of the U of S Research Communications office in partnership with the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.


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