Vanderbilt engineering professor wins National Science Foundation award
Mark D. Does, Vanderbilt assistant professor of biomedical engineering and assistant professor of radiology and radiological sciences, has won a prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) award.
The NSF CAREER award, given to exceptional junior faculty to support their promising research, will help fund Does’ research and development of new magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) techniques.
Does’ work will help advance the application of MRI technology to more precisely analyze bodily tissues at the cellular level, particularly in the brain, the spinal cord and the heart. His research will help researchers get a better understanding of diseases such as multiple sclerosis. In multiple sclerosis, degeneration of the sheath of myelin that insulates the nerve cells causes the cells to short out and fail to communicate with each other.
“MRI cannot visualize myelin directly, so we are looking at ways to infer its presence,” Does said. “Our immediate objective is simply to measure how much myelin is present, with a longer term goal of distinguishing between healthy myelin and myelin that has broken down.”
MRI technology is based on recording the energy outputs, in radio frequencies, of tissues subjected to a complex series of forces emanating from magnets and radio frequency transmitters. It has proven to be one of the most effective ways to non-invasively see what is happening within the body.
Starting with a gigantic magnet so heavy that most hospitals must install them on the ground floor, MRI includes a series of additional electromagnets called gradients that vary the magnetic field within the body, a system of radio frequency transmitters and receivers, and a computer that makes images out of the resulting data.
“MRI was devised only 30 years ago,” Does said, “and while it has become a mainstay in clinical radiology, it is rich in capabilities, and we are far from utilizing it to its full potential.”
Does noted that, while the knowledge base of tissue characteristics using MRI technology is vast, the expansion of the scientific database from the tissue level down to the cellular level can lead to many new MRI methods and applications.
Part of Does’ research will examine tissues highlighted by the addition of manganese, a contrast agent injected into the patient. The manganese is readily taken up by calcium channels, which are used to transmit electrical signals through nerve cells. Manganese is strongly imaged by MRI equipment.
Does is one of the core members of the Vanderbilt University Institute of Imaging Science (VUIIS) and directs its Center for Small Animal Imaging. The VUIIS is a multidisciplinary institute drawing from the School of Engineering, the School of Medicine and the College of Arts and Science. The institute conducts research ranging from cancer imaging to transgenic mouse imaging. The institute has special expertise in functional MRI, an exceptionally fast MRI technique that can track quick changes in tissue due to blood flow alterations.