Gary Tearney, MD, PhD, works at the intersection of medicine, science and engineering. He and his team are developing technologies so they can peer into tiny spaces within the body. They can now see into structures in the walls of arteries that supply blood to our hearts. What they see will help them save lives.
Dr. Tearney’s imaging methods are tools that scientists used to only imagine. These tools will be important for improving the quality of patient care.
Physicians often face challenges in diagnosing complex illnesses, like cancer and heart disease. Access to high-tech imaging machines can be a problem and the images produced don’t always provide definitive answers. Biopsies are expensive, invasive, and because they pull out only small samples of tissue, can miss problem areas. Sometimes physicians may not be able to properly identify the cause of an illness until it is too late to intervene.
In the Wellman Center for Photomedicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, Dr. Tearney and his team are working to discover ways to gain more information about disease. His specialty is optical coherence tomography, or OCT. It is a method of obtaining images of tissues within the body, at higher resolutions than MRIs or ultrasounds can achieve. The method produces more detailed images because it utilizes beams of light, as opposed to sound or radio frequency used by MRIs and ultrasounds. The enhanced detail holds the promise of giving researchers and physicians more clues, allowing them to better direct treatment while a patient is still living.
Dr. Tearney and his team can insert a catheter tube into the coronary arteries or other parts of the body to see the structures there with unprecedented detail. With these types of imaging, they can see the events that lead up to a heart attack, like blockage and build-up on the walls of the arteries, and potentially can diagnose cancer at a very early stage.
As a physician who also holds a doctorate in electrical engineering, Dr. Tearney has a multidisciplinary background that allows him to approach imaging from many directions. He began investigating OCT during his doctoral studies, when he realized the tremendous impact it could have on patients. OCT was revolutionary. Never before had imaging of that resolution been available for patients who were alive, he says.
His lab has invented a next-generation OCT technology, called microOCT (µOCT), resulting in an even higher resolution, 10 times more than before — capable of imaging cells and sub-cellular structures in the coronary wall, the lung and the eye. The detail of µOCT allows Dr. Tearney to see into the tissue at a level equivalent to the highest power light microscope.
He hopes one day, smaller, portable versions of his devices can be used by healthcare professionals to screen for illnesses as easily as possible in non-hospital or community settings with high rates of heart disease and cancer, among other diseases.
Mass General is the perfect environment for Dr. Tearney and his team to advance their research. The power to move this technology ahead quickly and efficiently means it can be used to save lives sooner. "Mass General clinicians are research-friendly and are willing to try new things, and we have outstanding collaborations," Dr. Tearney says. "We’re one of the few labs that has really been able to take it all the way from a very early-stage concept through the invention process, the validation process, first in-human demonstrations, multicenter clinical trials and commercialization. It really enables us to get these technologies out a lot faster. And it’s made possible by our existence on this campus."
Dr. Tearney was named a 2012 MGH Research Scholar, which provides him with support for five years. Such a resource is increasingly uncommon as funding from sources such as the national institutes of health is decreasing. "The funds will allow me to try out new things that i don’t, otherwise, think I would be able to try. And I have a high degree of confidence that it’s going to result in new technologies that are going to allow us to see in even more detail than we ever have before."