Melissa Skala, Morgridge medical engineering investigator and UW–Madison professor of biomedical engineering.

Melissa Skala: Follow the Light to Better Cancer Treatment

Biomedical engineer Melissa Skala would be happy to chat about some of the whiz-bang features of her medical imaging technology, such as resolution, speed, throughput, signal-to-noise ratio and the like.

But she’d much rather talk about the problems her technologies attack.

“I’m a problem-based person, which can drive some of my fellow scientists crazy,” Skala says. “I start with the problem, ask myself what is in my skill set that can influence the problem, then I develop the technologies or approaches. It’s just the way I get motivated to come to work.”

Skala’s research problems focus on cancer detection and treatment, and her expertise in light-based, optical imaging is giving clinicians revolutionary new tools for the fight. Skala will be bringing her talents this summer from Vanderbilt University to the Morgridge Institute for Research and the University of Wisconsin–Madison, as a Morgridge investigator and professor of Biomedical Engineering (BME).

Skala has made a number of innovations in optical imaging to better understand cancer at the cellular level, gathering information about the metabolism, structure and growth of tumor cells. She received a prestigious 2016 National Science Foundation CAREER Award to further work on a unique method of making cancer chemotherapy more precise, less toxic and patient-tailored.

Currently, cancer drugs can be highly unpredictable. What works for one patient may fail for another.

The goal of the project is to develop high-throughput imaging that can test a patient’s response to scores of different treatment combinations. They achieve this by taking a sample of the patient’s tumor, cutting it up to create a series of micro-tumors kept alive in a collagen matrix, then testing myriad treatment options to determine the best course of action.

“We can literally measure the patient’s response to a therapy before they ever get the therapy,” Skala says. “With the NSF grant, we want to build an imaging system that can do this fast across a lot of specimens.”

The majority of work to date has been on breast cancer, but, true to her problem-oriented outlook, Skala will be shifting her focus at Madison to the enormous challenge of fighting pancreatic cancer, which has the lowest five-year survival rate of any cancer.

“I’m super motivated to study pancreatic cancer because these patients typically have anywhere from six to 24 months to live after diagnosis,” she says. “You have no time to mess around with trying to find the right chemotherapy for the right tumor.”

Optical metabolic image of a human pancreatic tumor

Skala says pancreatic cancer remains so lethal because there are not enough targeted therapies available. Her work moving from breast to pancreatic cancer is particularly instructive. There are many targeted therapies for breast cancer that have brought great hope to patients. For example, breast cancer patients who tested positive for the HER-2 protein, which promotes fast cancer cell growth, used to die very quickly, but today there are many therapies that target that protein and survival rates are now very high.

Skala sees the same potential for pancreatic cancer patients. “I think they are understudied because people have been put off by the statistics. But for me, I think it’s an opportunity, because I think the technologies we are making will develop more effective therapies for pancreatic cancer.”

The Skala lab also has two surgical applications in development using optical coherence tomography, which works like ultrasound but uses light instead of sound waves. They are using it in the clinic as an imaging tool during brain surgery, giving neurosurgeons a more precise look at the target area. Another application provides better imaging for treatment of liver cancer, which requires an extremely high dose of chemotherapy right at the liver to be successful.

Both of these tools are being integrated right into the surgical microscope, enhancing the surgeon’s field of view, she says.

Optical imaging is a great medical tool because it’s fast, cheap and flexible. “What I like is we can build it right in our lab – we call it optics legos, you can grab these mechanics and lenses, screw them together and make anything you can imagine.”

Skala earned her bachelor’s degree from Washington State University in physics, originally leaning toward a career in astronomy. But she wanted to do something more humanitarian with her science, which drew her in 2002 to the UW–Madison biomedical engineering master’s program and the work of Professor Nirmala Ramanujam, who studied optical spectroscopy for cancer screening.

Skala earned her master’s at UW–Madison and then followed Ramanujam in 2006 to her new faculty position at Duke University, where Skala completed her PhD in 2007. She has been on the Vanderbilt faculty since 2010. She estimates that about a half-dozen members of her research team will join her in Madison.

“Biomedical Engineering is extremely excited to have her join our faculty,” says BME Chair Elizabeth Meyerand. “Dr. Skala is one of the nation’s thought leaders in her field, an inventor of innovative optical imaging tools that monitor biological markers such as cellular metabolic rate, molecular expression, blood oxygenation and blood flow. These tools provide early detection and individualized treatment to cancer patients. Because they are low cost, portable and fast, they are a perfect example of how advances in BME can improve accessibility to life-saving medical innovations.”

“Melissa is an exciting addition to our Morgridge and UW–Madison research community,” says Kevin Eliceiri, interim director of Morgridge Medical Engineering and director of the Laboratory for Optical and Computational Imaging (LOCI). “She is part of our new multi-scale imaging theme at Morgridge and will join me and another planned hire to do research across imaging scales with investigators in imaging and biological sciences at UW–Madison.”

The combined potential of working at both Morgridge and biomedical engineering is what ultimately swayed Skala to move her lab, which is a weighty career decision. She says the philosophy and energy of Morgridge appealed to her, as well as the possibilities of tapping the in-house Advanced Fabrication Laboratory.

“The Morgridge connection was just so amazing that I couldn’t pass it up,” she says. “I knew I had to get on the ground level of this place, because I feel it’s where Google was 20 years ago. This is the place people are going to talk about for the next 20 years.”