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Measuring the Dose and Spread of Radiation Delivered to the Site of a Tumor

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We recently had the pleasure of interviewing award-winning medical physicist Shakar Jafari, PhD. Shakar tells us about her scientific background, her pioneering research exploring the properties of glass bead detectors for measuring radiation, and how this technology could dramatically improve the accuracy of cancer treatment.

Laura Lansdowne (LL): What inspired you to pursue a career in science, and more specifically what motivated you to specialize in radiotherapy? 

Shakar Jafari (SJ): I have always been interested in science, particularly in finding out why things are the way they are, and how we can use them to make other things that are useful for people and communities. My father was a teacher in our village in Afghanistan where I was born, which helped I am sure.

When I was six, we moved to Iran and I used to help my father grow plants and flowers to sell. That’s where I learnt the science of plants and several fundamental business principles. In Iran and Afghanistan, there is a tradition that children give flowers to their teacher, so I used to gather up the short-stemmed flowers that my father didn’t want and sell them to my class-mates! I also made beaded jewelry and sold them at the market. Little did I know then that they would be of major importance in my life, business idea and potentially in global radiotherapy.

After studying Radiology and returning to Afghanistan years later, my father was diagnosed with cancer. There was no cancer treatment center in the country and despite taking my father abroad for treatment, it was too late. Before he passed away, I made my father a promise that I would somehow make a difference in providing medical treatment to disadvantaged people and countries. I did not need any further motivation than that.

LL: Your research focuses on improving the accuracy of radiotherapy. Could you tell us more about this research and the technology that has been developed as a result of your work?

SJ: I started my research at the University of Surrey in medical physics on nanoparticles as radiation sensitizers, but then chose to focus on how fiber-optic technology could be used as radiation detectors in a patient’s body to improve the measurement and confirmation of treatment delivery.

I spent some time searching for the right material to irradiate. I tried incredibly thin fiber, but it was very difficult to work with, then I remembered the jewelry beads I had in childhood. They were glass, just like optical fibers, and far more robust for handling. I tested some beads in a lab and they worked well.

I already knew research had shown that 10–25% of radiotherapy patients worldwide are damaged by their treatment – some very seriously – and the extra medical services needed are expensive. Though modern advanced radiotherapy uses digital imaging technology to “see” the position and shape of the target tumor, the clinician still cannot see or measure where the radiation actually hits in the patient’s body or know the actual dose inside the patient’s body.

Current radiation detectors for radiotherapy are not suitable for in-body use because of their material, shape or construction. But glass beads are inert, impervious to liquid, physically very small and can be threaded on a string for easy handling.

We developed a new form of automated reader that analyses the whole string of beads in about 15 minutes, and the readings are passed to the clinician’s computer. The clinician can also “see” where the beads are in the patient because they show up clearly on the patient imaging system. The individual beads can be identified by their sequence on the string.

After the bead readings, the clinician can then compare the actual doses received at 100 points at and around the tumor in the patient’s body, with the expected doses that were set up in the patient treatment plan. If there are any inaccuracies the clinician can decide what adjustments, if any, to make.

We call a single string of beads a 1D DoseMapper™, but they can also be used in 2D “mesh” configurations for curved surface area measurements and importantly in 3D expandable balloon configurations for measuring doses to the walls of a patient’s body cavity.

LL: Could you tell us more about Trueinvivo, what are the company’s missions and goals?

SJ: Our beginnings are at the University of Surrey, where I did my PhD. I was invited to Research to Innovator course by business incubators SETsquared Surrey, who are based on the Surrey Research Park (which is owned by the University of Surrey) – it was attending the course that made me realize my research had commercial opportunity.

The course was really inspiring, and I applied for a programme called iCURE, ran by SETsquared specifically for university research teams with commercially promising ideas. I was accepted and completed market research around the lack of in vivo dosimetry both in the UK and abroad.

The mentoring and support throughout the programme helped me to develop the business and it was during this time I was introduced to University of Surrey’s Entrepreneur-in-Residence, Nigel Biggs. He helped me to develop the business more and he’s since become the CEO of TRUEinvivo. Together we built the team and the advisory board, and I was lucky enough to win a Women-in-Innovation award from Innovate UK which provided our first £50k investment into the company.

Last year, we also raised £300k in seed investment to build our prototypes and we are currently raising further investment, taking the reader into pre-production later this year. Our immediate goal is to achieve CE and regulatory approval for our reader in 2019. This means we can then sell our DoseMapper™ products and reader systems. We already have three UK hospital partners that will test the devices and will very probably be our first customers. We are in discussions with another six UK hospitals and our goal is to have them all up and running by the middle of 2020.

Overall, we want to get our technology into as many cancer centers worldwide as possible to save unnecessary damage to patients, save them and their families from a reduced quality of life and save the extra medical costs needed to treat them. We will be selling initially to Europe and the USA but also targeting India, China and other highly populated areas. We have one particular mission to help establish radiotherapy services in countries, like Afghanistan, where there is none. That is very close to my heart.

Through developing the business and our technology, we have seen that there are other applications within other industries like animal health, nuclear decommissioning, aerospace and defense. Although these are not our focus now, they are great opportunities for us in the future on our radiotherapy mission.

In the long term we want to research other ways of helping people with cancer. This is ever more relevant to me as last year I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I am nearly through the chemotherapy and I may well be having radiotherapy later this year. What an opportunity to use my ideas and our products!

LL: Could you comment on your experience as a research entrepreneur, is there any advice you could give to those in the field that are thinking of setting up a business?

SJ: It is wonderful to me that the term “research entrepreneur” is even being used. Though I have had entrepreneurial tendencies throughout my life, my early experiences as a researcher were all about disseminating and publishing results for the public good. It was great that other researchers could and would pick up on my research, confirm it or take it further.  But then during my PhD I also realized that so many research theses sit on a shelf somewhere getting dusty.

Of course, funded research these days does require clearer impact statements, so the researcher does need some idea of the potential implementation and benefits of their work. But often they have no thought about doing that themselves. I was very lucky to be involved in the SETsquared programmes at Surrey, which enabled me to meet many entrepreneurs. SETsquared helped me discover that there could be a business related to my research and that I could investigate it further with the iCURE programme. That is the first step I would recommend to any researcher. Research the business possibilities with real entrepreneurs. Of course, you may not know any entrepreneurs but there are university-related organizations like SETsquared that can put you in touch with likeminded people.

The people I’ve met I received through SETsquared Surrey are great, and I was lucky enough to find an entrepreneur who both helped me and then got excited himself about the business opportunities. Finding like-minded support is really important, like it is with any project, and if you’re a budding research entrepreneur, see if there’s other research entrepreneurs you can speak to and get advice from. I’m always willing to help others where I can!

Shakar Jafari was speaking with Laura Elizabeth Lansdowne, Science Writer for Technology Networks.