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CLIMBing to new heights: new center to break barriers in imaging technology – Carle Illinois College of Medicine

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Researchers from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign will use funding from the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering at the National Institutes of Health to establish a new national collaborative Biomedical Technology Research Resource to develop label-free optical imaging technologies for medical and biological applications.
Development of the Center for Label-free Imaging and Multi-scale Biophotonics, known as CLIMB, was a joint effort between three Carle Illinois College of Medicine faculty members: Stephen Boppart, a professor of electrical and computer engineering and bioengineering; Mark Anastasio, a professor of bioengineering; and Rohit Bhargava, a professor of bioengineering. The three worked on the project with the late Gabriel Popescu, who was a professor of electrical and computer engineering.
The center’s primary goal is to create optical and computational imaging technologies that can serve as a resource for clinicians as well as other investigators in the biological and medical sciences. 
The interdisciplinary team members initiated the idea almost three years ago, drawing inspiration from the growing recognition of label-free biomedical optical imaging as a unique area of study. 
“Traditionally, people have used dyes, stains, and labels in microscopy to provide contrast, but those can be toxic and interfere with the cells and the very processes we are investigating. The questions arose: ‘What signals can we extract from cells, molecules, and tissues in a label-free manner? What are their inherent optical properties?’ If we can take advantage of that, it can lead to many benefits,” Boppart said.
One of those benefits is that technologies developed for label-free microscopy can immediately be incorporated into human studies, allowing researchers to efficiently demonstrate their clinical applications. This is an advantage over the dyes, stains, or optical probes used in traditional imaging applications, which are considered drugs that must be FDA-approved prior to use with human patients. 
“With light, we have the power to look at molecules and cells, but we also have to think about how that’s useful on a larger physical scale,” Boppart said. “The challenge becomes: ‘How do we capture new microscopic data in one small field of view, and then apply it to the very large macro scales in humans?’”
The center’s three major technology research and development projects include qualitative phase imaging, in vivo clinical imaging, and artificial intelligence. 
“The use of artificial intelligence and computational methods to enable and advance label-free imaging is a unifying theme in the center,” Anastasio said. “This will change the way that measurement data are acquired and improve the formation and analysis of microscopy images.” 
In addition to developing new technologies in the lab, the five-year award enables collaboration projects, service projects, education, outreach, and training. The education and training aspects of the program concentrate on sharing discoveries with research affiliates and the community. In 2023, the center will host a student-run seminar series, entrepreneurial training, a workshop to annually foster collaboration, and a two-week summer school for graduate researchers.
“We are intentionally thinking about outreach and diversity,” Boppart said. “We are working with other groups on campus to increase the pathway for underrepresented minorities to get interested in optics, biophotonics, and research.
“We’ve seen a lot of interest from interactive opportunities like the Beckman Institute Open House, where K-12 students and the public come in and see what we do. They get excited because we work with lasers and lights and cells, which I think are inherently fascinating to people.”
The launch phase of the program will focus on raising visibility for the center as a resource, organizing research collaborations, and initiating new training for graduate students.
By year five, the researchers hope to demonstrate that the technologies developed there are being used widely and making a broad impact across the country.
The center’s five-year award is renewable; in the longer term, the group aims to “show that [their] research has improved human health and our fundamental understanding of biology and disease,” Boppart said. “That would ultimately be the big reward to the scientific community and to the patients.”
The late Gabriel “Gabi” Popescu, a former professor of electrical and computer engineering, contributed to the development of CLIMB before his sudden and unexpected passing in June 2022. The center will exist as a tribute to his legacy.The group was about to receive word of their funding in June 2022, when the news was shared of Popescu’s sudden and unexpected passing.
“We’re very humbled by what Gabi was able to do in his own research, and in the development of CLIMB,” Boppart said. “He was such an inspiration to bring groups together, and the center is the result of his efforts. For as long as this goes, we’ll see this center as a tribute to his legacy.”
In the weeks after Popescu’s passing, the team began the process of restructuring. Boppart assumed the lead as principal investigator and Bhargava stepped in to cover Popescu’s research area. The group’s restructured application was ultimately awarded, which Boppart attributes to continued support from The Grainger College of Engineering and the campus Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation, as well as the unique strengths of the Beckman community.
“Large center efforts like this require a really strong interdisciplinary approach, and that’s why we’re here at Beckman,” Boppart said. “We have a large number of faculty working in this space who are international leaders in this area. Our faculty include not only optical physicists and engineers, but also biologists and physicians and computer scientists, and dedicated staff, students, and researchers who all come together. 
“We’re a team, and these centers are meant to be big team efforts. We’re just fortunate to have all the right people and pieces.”
Editor’s notes:
The original version of this article by the Beckman Institute can be found here
Additional project details can be accessed via NIH RePORTER: https://reporter.nih.gov/search/npA4OUhShkeZzsNv-ACthg/project-details/10495657 
Research reported in this press release was supported by the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number 1P41EB031772-01A1. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.
Media contact: Jenna Kurtzweil, kurtzwe2@illinois.edu
A partnership between the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and Carle Health
Carle Illinois College of Medicine
University of Illinois
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