From left to right, Prof. Borislav Kondov, Viktor Gruev, and ZHongmin Zhu, shown here in the operating room at the University Clinic Hospital in North Macedonia along with the NSF-funded research team’s imaging instrument which allows for evaluation of ex vivo samples taken during surgery and evaluation of the presence of metastatic lymph nodes.

A research team led by Cancer Center at Illinois (CCIL) Program Leader Viktor Gruev, professor of electrical and computer engineering, was awarded a Phase I grant by the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Convergence Accelerator. This unique program funds the development and translation of multi-disciplinary research technologies for societal-scale impact. NSF’s novel program focuses on the end-user, facilitating multi-disciplinary-inspired solutions for positive, real-world applications. “What’s pioneering about the Convergence Accelerator is that we bring these teams together and manage them in a cohort of investigators,” said Convergence Accelerator Program Director Linda Molnar.

The Convergence Accelerator recognized grant awardees according to targeted research themes, one of which is Bioinspired Design Innovations. “We knew that this theme was perfect for the work we have already been doing,” said Gruev, whose co-principal investigators include CCIL member Shuming Nie, professor of bioengineering, Isak Ladegaard, assistant professor of sociology, and Thomas Cronin, a visual ecologist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “Our diverse team, comprised of engineers, material scientists, physicians, visual ecologists, and social scientists, unites academia and industry in a collaborative effort to pioneer this groundbreaking technology,” said Gruev.

Gruev’s team was awarded $650,000 for the 2024 fiscal year for their project, “Bioinspired Multispectral Imaging Technology for Intraoperative Cancer Detection,” which aims to solve one of oncology’s great challenges: detecting positive lymph nodes.

The team’s innovative sensing technology, already in prototype form, is inspired by mantis shrimp vision. The sensor sits upon a single chip, enabling the simultaneous detection of cancer markers through near-infrared fluorescence and deep ultraviolet fluorescence. As previously reported by the CCIL, Gruev’s lab has developed other novel cancer detection technologies inspired by the vision capabilities of the mantis shrimp and butterfly.

“We have three objectives in this project,” said Gruev. “First, we will develop a multispectral, bioinspired imaging device to see specific tumor biomarkers. Second, we will validate the technology to guarantee its accuracy in detecting positive sentinel lymph nodes, both in vivo and ex vivo. Third, we will conduct a comprehensive evaluation of the practicality and transformative potential of this technology within the complex landscape of surgical environments.”

Gruev’s bioinspired innovations are no stranger to NSF funding, having come thus far through the Airforce Office of Scientific Research and NSF support.

“But this NSF grant is very different,” said Gruev. “We are working directly with the end-user in the development of the technology, ensuring that the final product is tailor-made for cancer surgeons.”

In Phase I, Gruev’s team is collaborating with the University of Pennsylvania’s Dr. Sunil Singhal, working with patients who have lung cancer, and a clinician at a resource-constrained north Macedonian hospital working with patients who have breast cancer. The Macedonian hospital context provides a similar model to community hospitals here in America, Gruev believes, and allows the technology’s development to positively engage a global problem.

“Over my years of research and developing imaging technologies, I’ve witnessed dozens of cancer procedures,” said Gruev. “It is an invaluable experience to bring back to our lab. As part of this project, I will contact dozens of clinicians using similar technologies to evaluate and refine our technology for the end user.”

This year, Gruev and his team will be on-site in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Macedonia to observe lung and breast cancer surgeries, ensuring that the development and translation of their prototype are effective for actual patients overcoming cancer. Convergence Accelerator Phase II will ideally move the technology to commercial application, pending FDA approval, added Gruev.

Editor’s notes:

This story was written by Jonathan King, CCIL Communications Specialist