ASU researchers provide a golden opportunity to improve cancer treatment accuracy

April 9, 2020

Accuracy is extremely important for cancer radiation treatments. Today, more than half of people diagnosed with cancer undergo radiotherapy, where a precise total dose of ionizing radiation is delivered over multiple treatment sessions to effectively stop the growth of cancer cells.

It is critical to monitor radiation doses in real time to ensure a person receives the exact prescribed dose. When overexposed to radiation, treatment can become harmful — damaging healthy cells and inducing toxicity that can cause future negative consequences. Underexposure, on the other hand, means cancer cells or a tumor may not be effectively treated. Subhadeep Dutta is helping to develop a quicker, cheaper and more user-friendly way to measure cancer radiation treatment doses. Subhadeep Dutta, a chemistry doctoral student at Arizona State University, contributes to an interdisciplinary research group led by Kaushal Rege, a professor of chemical engineering in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at ASU, to develop a quicker, cheaper and more user-friendly way to measure cancer radiation treatment doses. Photo by Erika Gronek/ASU Download Full Image

Even with quality assurance practices, equipment issues or a patient moving too much during treatment can affect how much radiation the patient receives.

Dr. Stephen Sapareto, former director of medical physics at the Gilbert, Arizona, Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center, was concerned about existing expensive, slow and difficult-to-use methods to measure radiation doses. He approached Kaushal Rege, a professor of chemical engineering in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University. 

“They wanted something that is easier to use and more cost-effective compared to existing solutions,” said Subhadeep Dutta, a chemistry doctoral student who works on an interdisciplinary research team in the Rege Bioengineering Lab.

Interdisciplinary teams solve interdisciplinary problems

Problems of this nature can’t be solved by one discipline, so it’s important to have a diverse research team working on the solution. Rege’s lab incorporates chemical and biomedical engineers in addition to biology and chemistry researchers, like Dutta. Rege regularly collaborates with students from other schools at ASU.

"These synergistic interactions have led to the development of new technologies for addressing cutting-edge biomedical problems," Rege said.

Dutta brings an extensive background in organic chemistry, which can inform how chemicals react to radiation.

"This research project is based on new developments in fundamental nanochemistry applied to solving a clinically relevant problem," Rege said. "Subhadeep's background in chemistry is important for developing the fundamental underpinnings of the technology while keeping the eventual biomedical application in focus."

When he came to ASU to earn his doctoral degree in chemistry, Dutta was eager for the opportunity to use his chemistry background to work on applied projects.

“I always wanted to do something in the application side of chemistry, and that’s why I moved to ASU and became part of (Dr. Rege’s) research team,” Dutta said. “We all have these different types of expertise, and if I have a question that I might not know, somebody else in our group can help me solve it.”

Chemistry colors radiation treatment accuracy

With input from collaborators at Banner-MD Anderson, Dutta and other researchers from Rege’s lab, including recently graduated student Karthik Pushpavanam, set out to create a new measurement method that is safe for people receiving radiotherapy, as well as quicker, cheaper and more user-friendly.

Gold nanoparticles are well understood in chemistry literature for changing color based on size, shape and molecular interactions.

“Gold is a good fit because it can change colors based on its size and shape in the nanoparticle form,” Dutta said. “As soon as radiation hits the colorless gel (containing gold ions), it starts to make nanoparticles, and a color change can be observed within 15 minutes.”

This type of gel, called a hydrogel, is typically made of 90% water. A patch of the hydrogel can be placed on a person’s skin at the site where radiation will be directed. As radiation passes through the hydrogel, it splits the water molecules into reducing agents (e.g., electrons) and starts the chemical reaction that turns the gold salts into nanoparticles, giving color to the gel. In this case, the nanoparticles turn pink/maroon.

The intensity of the color in the gel can be correlated to a measurement of the delivered radiation dose. So, within minutes, clinicians can use the gel to calculate how much radiation the person has received and adjust future doses if it differs from that session’s prescribed dose. For example, if a person was supposed to receive 1 unit of radiation but instead received 1.3 units, the next session could be adjusted to even out the cumulative dose.

So far, the team has been able to successfully demonstrate the gold nanoparticles are effective at measuring radiation doses using clinical systems at Banner-MD Anderson and Arizona Veterinary Oncology, and they’ll soon use the method more widely.

In the project’s next phase, Dutta and the research team are planning to develop a companion app. By taking a photo of the colored gel, the app would assess the color and provide the correlated dose measurement in seconds, making the technology even more user-friendly. This can have further implications for radiation safety and security.

Monique Clement

Communications specialist, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


ASU campus visits, new-student orientations pivot to virtual setup

Nearly 1,500 students have already gone through virtual programs as teams fine-tune features for what students and families most need

April 9, 2020

Just like every spring, future Sun Devils are touring the ASU campus, attending New Student Orientation programs, meeting with academic advisers and signing up for their fall classes.

But this time around, they’re doing this from the comfort of their own homes. With the need for social distancing amid the spread of COVID-19, ASU’s orientation programs for incoming fall 2020 students and the Experience ASU campus tours for prospective students have transitioned to online at least through June 30. Screenshot of a class schedule during a Zoom meeting Sandra Voller (at top), the director of academic services for The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, leads a virtual orientation session via Zoom with incoming fall 2020 Barrett, The Honors College students on March 26. Students pictured are, top to bottom: Kyra Miller of New River, Arizona, biomedical sciences; Leila Stewart of Houston, double-majoring in women and gender studies and psychology; and Aislinn Marek of Lake Oswego, Oregon, biological sciences. Download Full Image

On a recent morning, dozens of soon-to-be Barrett, The Honors College students peered into a Zoom screen on their laptops as ASU staff, academic college administrators and advisers guided them through an orientation program remotely. Beginning with live welcome messages from university and Barrett Honors deans and a video message from President Michael Crow, the program then delved into campus resources, ways to get involved and details about course requirements and registration.

Students and guests later followed a link to a separate virtual room, where academic advisers helped the incoming Sun Devils sign up for their fall classes.

For at least one family, the online orientation program offered a welcome break from social isolation and hope for brighter days ahead.

“It's been a disappointment for my senior to be stuck inside, and he was excited for his online orientation,” said Katrina Hallin, whose son attended the newly implemented virtual program. “It really gave him something to look forward to during this uncertain time. The adviser even emailed after his session to say 'thanks' and remind him he still had two classes to register for. He's all signed up for his classes and looking forward to moving to Tempe in August — cross your fingers.”

From March 20 through April 8, the New Student Orientation team hosted 10 virtual programs with 1,425 incoming students participating. Another 58 online programs are planned through the end of June.

In addition, separate orientation programs for families of incoming students are scheduled throughout the spring. These virtual sessions designed just for family members will introduce them to university resources and opportunities for involvement and engagement for Sun Devil families.

Experience ASU campus visit tours have gone virtual as well, also using the now-ubiquitous conferencing tool Zoom.

Matthew López, associate vice president for Enrollment Services, says, “We asked, what experience do our visitors have when they visit, and how can we reproduce as much of that experience as possible in a virtual setting?”

Turns out, quite a bit. The virtual visit tours consist of two ASU admission coordinators who live-host a 45-minute presentation, and a moderator who assists behind the scenes. The tour dives into a number of need-to-know topics including residential colleges, student involvement opportunities and admission requirements. Throughout the presentation, prospective students chime in with written questions, which a host answers live or the moderator immediately responds to in written form, making it a truly interactive experience.

Instead of taking days or weeks to conceptualize and design the virtual visit tours, the Admission Services team jumped right in. López says, “We were literally doing virtual visits the day after campus closed. It was pivot and execute.” 

And the fine-tuning started immediately. For example, after the first session with one host, the team realized they needed a two-host format so the virtual visits were more of a conversation. They also learned that unlike with in-person tours, they needed to account for different time zones when communicating tour start times.

Meeting with a prospective college or connecting with current students can be vital to helping a student make a good decision about where to attend college. And so a second component was added to the tours: an information session with one of the colleges or a Q&A with current ASU students, depending on which visit tour prospective students choose.

Mark Adaoag, associate director of recruitment and outreach for The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, says of his college’s information sessions, “The biggest challenge is not being able to interact with students in person and gauge their level of interest.” But they have been able to personalize the experiences for students, which has been a major pride point. Adaoag says, “We have the presentation set; however, we are able to switch pretty quickly to a one-on-one session and really focus on individual student interests and questions.”

As helpful as the virtual tours are, they are missing one noticeable component of an in-person visit — a campus walking tour led by an ASU student called a Devil's Advocate. The Enrollment Services Communications team got creative and quickly produced videos with a Devil’s Advocate giving an extended tour of each campus. The Tempe campus and Polytechnic campus tours are available online now; tours of the other Valley campuses are in production.

Between March 17 — the day of the first tour — and April 8, 844 students have taken a virtual visit. And the feedback has been encouraging — first-year recruitment and admission director Brad Baertsch says, “Students are thankful that we’ve been able to adapt to them and meet them in a variety of ways.”

As the virtual season progresses, the orientation team has been fine-tuning and working in new features. Student-to-student Q&A panels were recently added, giving incoming Sun Devils the opportunity to chat via Zoom with ASU Gold Guides, the student employees who would normally assist during in-person programs. The first few Q&As have been well-attended, and students asked a variety of questions about campus life and resources.  

Other new components of online orientation include soon-to-be-added virtual housing tours. ASU’s orientation website for first-year students provides details on registering for an online program, how to prepare for orientation and more. Future Sun Devils can download their student handbook from the website prior to the program.

Family members, meanwhile, will find digital copies of the Orientation Family Handbook and a commemorative ASU Family Calendar, along with other important links, on the Families and Guests webpage.

Learn more at the visit page, which has been retooled with information and registration forms.

Jim Brophy and Daniel Guerin contributed to this story.