Small tools, big impact

Small tools, big impact

An engineer and doctor, Victor Yang develops medical technology to detect and treat disease
December 21, 2011

Cancer, heart disease and stroke are leading causes of death among Canadians. As a medical doctor, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering and a Canada Research Chair in Bioengineering and Biophotonics, Victor Yang has a unique perspective on these deadly diseases.

Based at Ryerson University, Yang also has surgical training and works with neurosurgeons in several teaching hospitals. As a result, he understands how the smallest, most precise tools can bring about huge changes in a patient’s treatment and health.

Yang has two research interests: developing new techniques to image the human body and devising novel tools for minimally invasive procedures. Both areas rely on his expertise in an emerging medical-imaging technology: Doppler optical coherence tomography (DOCT).

Using minuscule optical fibres, DOCT creates detailed 3-D images of the tiniest structures and movements within the body. When looking at delicate and small anatomical features, DOCT is more exact than ultrasound, more economical than MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans and safer than X-rays. Above all, DOCT can see things 10 to 100 times smaller than can these traditional techniques.

Yang and his research team are enhancing DOCT for medical applications. For example, cancerous masses spur the rapid development of extra blood vessels to feed their growth. Yang is using DOCT to detect and image those vessels with an aim to destroying them. “The overall goal,” he says, “is to locate the tumour vasculature, treat it and then evaluate the results.”

Meanwhile, Yang is collaborating with colleagues at the University of British Columbia and the University of Toronto to develop flexible fibre-optic probes with artificial muscles that can be used in minimally invasive procedures, such as endoscopy or angiography. They have built a mini-probe that may soon help doctors locate small passageways within a blocked artery and prevent dangerous perforations. The probe has promise to allow more patients to become candidates for angioplasty and avoid major surgeries, such as a coronary-artery bypass.

But patients aren’t the only ones benefiting from Yang’s expertise. Many of his graduate students conduct research not only at Ryerson but also at Princess Margaret Hospital and Harvard Medical School. And Barry Vuong, one of Yang’s PhD students, is currently doing experiments at Massachusetts General Hospital, while Darren Morofk, Yang’s first master’s student, is completing his PhD study at the University of Oxford. These prestigious learning opportunities help transform the research culture at Ryerson. “Young Ryerson researchers are working with the best in the field,” says Yang, “and I think they can compete on the world stage in the near future.”

Working with researchers at the University Health Network, St. Michael’s Hospital and Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, Yang envisions technological leaps in multiple medical specialties. “These collaborations are out-of-the-box partnerships that lead to creative thinking and practical problem solving,” he says. “They reflect our university’s history and traditional strength in a new arena.”

The CFI factor

Funding provided by the Canada Foundation for Innovation was used to purchase much-needed equipment for Yang’s multidisciplinary research team. That equipment includes advanced test and measurement instruments, high-speed digital data acquisition and analysis workstations and high-precision positioning devices. Furthermore, the funding supports not only Yang’s Doppler optical coherence tomography research, for which he has published many papers and filed several patents, but also a new direction for optical-imaging-guided surgical navigation.