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Tell us about your work

Understanding the functions of the human body with the wave of a wand has been a fantasy of science fiction writers for decades. Optical technologies are closing in on this fantasy by providing specific information on tissue structure and function. The Vanderbilt Biomedical Photonics Laboratory explores three main areas of research: optical diagnostics, optical therapeutics and noninvasive optical imaging. The biomedical photonics labs are housed in a newly renovated 6,300-square-foot, state-of-the-art research space in the W.M. Keck Foundation Free Electron Laser Center. The expanded space houses numerous lasers, wet lab space, cell culture facilities, dedicated instruments for optical spectroscopy and imaging and an instrumentation design lab.

How did you end up in an offbeat, unconventional and unique career such as BioMedical engineering?

Although her childhood dream was to become a medical doctor, Anita Mahadevan-Jansen ultimately chose to study physics.

My father died of brain cancer when I was 12 years old. He was diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme, the most lethal form of brain cancer, six years earlier and had surgery to remove the tumor. He lived six years and one week from the date of his surgery. You can tell this to neurosurgeons today and they will tell you a six-year survival is still close to a record, even today. My father died in 1980 in India when there was just one CT scanner in the entire country. Despite tremendous technological developments since then, none of them have done much to improve the survival rate of patients with brain cancer. I decided early on I was going to help. My love for medicine and physics drew me to biomedical engineering for my career.

What did you study?

I did my bachelors and Masters in Physics from the University of Mumbai . However, biomedical engineering didn’t exist as a major in India then, so I came to the United States to do my Masters in University of Texas (BioMedical Engg) followed by a Ph.D.

She began studying optical devices to detect cervical pre-cancers under the direction of Rebecca Richards-Kortum, who is currently the Stanley C. Moore Professor of Bioengineering at Rice University. Anita’s research began with fluorescence before moving to Raman spectroscopy, which is her main focus today as the Orrin H. Ingram Chair in Biomedical Engineering at Vanderbilt University.

Raman spectroscopy is a technique involving the use of a light particle that, when applied to tissue, gives information about the biochemical properties and activities occurring within that tissue.

“The light particle is a like a cue ball in a game of pool, and every time the cue ball hits the other balls on the table, those balls behave in a certain way,” she says. “When a light particle is aimed at tissue, the light reflects back, and in that reflection we have all kinds of information about what is happening with those molecules.”

One benefit of Raman spectroscopy over other optical techniques is its sensitivity. Many devices used today detect large changes in tissues, mainly whether or cells are cancerous. Devices that use Raman spectroscopy can detect smaller changes such as infection, inflammation, low-grade disease, and pre-cancers, in addition to large changes.

This technology had previously been used in other fields such as chemistry, but Anita’s PhD project was one of the first to use Raman spectroscopy to diagnose disease inside the body.

The training I received at UT, and the close-knit family atmosphere helped me feel like what I was doing was important and that somebody cared about what I was doing,” Anita said. “Austin was clearly a life-changing experience for me.”

In addition to discovering her research interests in optical techniques for disease diagnosis, Anita also met her future husband, Duco Jansen. He studied therapeutic applications of lasers under A.J. Welch, who is now a professor emeritus, and today is also a professor of biomedical engineering at Vanderbilt University.

The two operate their own laboratories at Vanderbilt, and together are collaborating on a project to see how light can activate nerves. They are also raising an 11-year-old son and a 14-year-old daughter, who they have proudly introduced to Longhorn culture.

As for the field of biomedical engineering veering her away from her childhood goal of becoming a medical doctor, Anita has no regrets.

“It sounds cliché to say, but what I do helps more than one patient at a time.”

How does your work benefit the community?

Biomedical engineering allows me to combine my strengths in technology development with my love for medicine. Whether I am looking for a method to screen for skin cancer without taking a biopsy or devising a way to tell surgeons where a tumor ends and normal begins so they can remove the cancer completely in a single surgery, I use light to solve such problems. I build instruments that can detect cancers early, using properties of light that behave differently in normal compared to cancerous tissues. These instruments are like Star Trek’s “tricorder,” a handheld device that can scan a suspicious area with light and indicate whether it is cancer. These are just examples of some of my ongoing projects as part of the biomedical photonics laboratories.

One of her main interests is optical guidance in surgery. Surgeons use her laser spectroscopy techniques during delicate brain surgery—when mistakes can be catastrophic—to better distinguish between healthy and diseased tissue.

Her optical techniques are also used in breast cancer surgery. Following lumpectomies—in which surgeons remove only the cancerous tumor instead of the entire breast—it can take several days for laboratory tests to discover if all the cancerous tissue has been removed. Often, the patient must return for further surgery. Mahadevan-Jansen’s techniques are currently being used to discriminate between the lump’s healthy and cancerous tissue so that all of the diseased tissue can be removed in a single operation.