BLOOMINGTON — Gabe Spalding is sculpting light to try to kill tumors and pain centers while preserving surrounding healthy tissue.
Spalding is an Illinois Wesleyan University professor of physics who is directing international, cutting-edge research in which physicists are working with biomedical researchers to manipulate beams of light to more selectively attack tumors and pain centers in the human body.
Applications could be for patients with cancer, chronic pain or Parkinson’s disease, he said.
“We’re trying to shape beams into 3-D (three-dimensional) structures,” Spalding explained in his office on the lower level of IWU’s Center for Natural Science. “Maybe it’s the shape of a tumor or a pain center.
“If we can just damage that part selectively — without hurting the brain or another part of the body to get there — that’s a big deal,” Spalding said.
Spalding admitted that his research may be 10 years away from use with patients. “Medical research takes a long time before it can be exposed to people. It is a good system of checks and balance.”
The research intrigues Dr. Shermian Woodhouse, medical director and a radiation oncologist at the Community Cancer Center in Normal.
The cancer center already has radiation therapy machines — such as a TomoTherapy unit — that attack tumors with small beams of radiation to preserve as much surrounding healthy tissue as possible to minimize side effects of treatment.
Because a CT (computerized tomography) scan is taken before each TomoTherapy treatment — instead of just one scan before the first treatment — treatment planning can be adjusted so radiation is delivered to the precise location of the tumor at that time.
If Spalding’s research leads to treatment, attacking tumors would become even more precise.
“If his research pans out, it would be a tremendous value to patients,” Woodhouse said. “If we could develop techniques that are less invasive, we could help with (patients’) quality of life and the recovery period.”
Spalding, 51, is a Louisville, Ky., native who graduated from Washington University in St. Louis and received his doctoral degree in applied physics from Harvard University. Spalding is married to Brenda Wernick and they have two sons — Cooper, 16, and Dalton, 9.
Spalding worked on superconductors — elements, alloys or compounds that will conduct electricity without resistance below a certain temperature. Once set in motion, superconductors are believed to be the closest thing to perpetual motion in nature.
Spalding worked at the University of Minnesota and came to Illinois Wesleyan in 1996. He decided that he preferred a smaller university because it allowed him to continue his research while focusing on teaching.
“For me, the smaller school is where I could make the biggest difference,” he said. “I like working with undergrads.” All IWU physics students are involved in research and 75 percent of them go on to get doctoral degrees, he said.
With his superconductor research, Spalding needed to process materials with fine control over a huge area. He found he could organize those things using light.
He realized that his research not only had application in the outside world but inside the human body. He read about Scottish researchers working with Bessel beams.
A Bessel beam is a type of light beam that is non-diffractive, meaning that as it goes out, it doesn’t spread out. In contrast, most light and sound spreads out after being focused on a spot.
Bessel beams also are self-healing, meaning they can be partially obstructed at one point but will re-form further down the beam axis.
Spalding wrote a proposal that was accepted. For 10 years, he has been conducting research — with colleagues that include biophotonics researcher Mike MacDonald, physicists and medical clinicians — at the Institute for Medical Science & Technology at Ninewells Hospital in Dundee, Scotland. Each summer, Spalding takes IWU students with him to Scotland where they are included in the research.
Spalding also had two labs in IWU’s natural science building.
The application to killing tumors and pain centers is exciting, Spalding said.
Now, light used to damage a tumor may spread out when it gets to its focus point. While today’s treatments are impressive in non-invasively destroying tumors, when someone breathes, a tumor may move, he said.
A Bessel beam not only would not spread but could be manipulated.
“I developed advanced methods for sculpting with light and they (Scottish researchers) wanted me to sculpt ultrasonic fields to match tumors,” he said.
“We sculpt different parts of the beam rather than turning it on and off,” Spalding said. “We program time lags into different parts of the beam” to protect healthy tissue and attack only sick tissue.
“We’re controlling the beam, giving it dexterity.”
Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), researchers can look at tumors real-time and in three dimensions and can see precisely where the beam is going.
To Spalding, his transition from superconductor research to medical research is an example of what’s fun and gratifying about being a scientist.
“We’re always learning new things, making new connections. Sometimes, things fit together in ways that are really beautiful.”