Sarah Erickson-Bhatt: Bridge to a breakthrough

When Sarah Erickson-Bhatt lost her mother to breast cancer before she began undergraduate study in 2001, the physics student determined that fighting cancer would become her life’s work.

The question of “how” emerged when she joined the biomedical engineering PhD program at Florida International University. There, she encountered a remarkable technology called optical imaging, which uses harmless near-infrared light to detect and diagnose disease, including breast cancer.

For the past decade, she has been working to perfect this technology and create applications that could save lives.

Today, as a new Morgridge Institute for Research postdoctoral fellow in medical engineering, Erickson-Bhatt is taking her work full-circle. Having devoted great energy to the technical issues of building instruments, she now will expand her knowledge on the biological underpinnings of cancer.

“I wanted to learn more about breast cancer itself and cancer biology,” says Erickson-Bhatt, who joined Morgridge this summer from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “How can we use these technologies to study the fundamental biology, and not just determine whether cancer is there or not?”

Multi-scale approaches to studying cancer

She found the “optimal place” for this pursuit at Morgridge and the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where she is bridging between three distinct research worlds to develop a more complete picture of cancer. Collaborators include:

  • Patricia Keely, a professor of cell and regenerative biology who studies the tumor microenvironment and how cancer cells interact with healthy cells in order to proliferate;
  • Kevin Eliceiri, Morgridge investigator in the Medical Engineering theme and director of the Laboratory for Optical and Computational Instrumentation (LOCI), who has developed new high-resolution imaging and analysis techniques for characterizing the tumor microenvironment;
  • Sean Fain, a medical physics professor who has developed platforms that combine several different imaging techniques, including magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), to research cancer in animal models.

Understanding breast cancer metabolism

Erickson-Bhatt says she is excited about bringing all three elements — the basic biology, the technology, and the research application — together to study breast cancer in a powerful new way.

Her current project focuses on combining imaging technologies to study cancer metabolism. They are looking for metabolic signatures that will help scientists predict whether the tumor is likely to metastasize. This is a critical question, since about 90 percent of all cancer deaths are caused by metastasis.

“Right now, the current clinical imaging techniques cannot predict whether or not cancer will metastasize,” she says. “Surgeons look at lymph nodes to determine the need for chemotherapy after the fact, but they currently can’t predict metastatic spread from the tumor itself at earlier stages.”

The Keely lab offers some promising insights on how the tumor microenvironment can alter the growth, migration and metastasis of breast cancer. The lab has identified conditions of the microenvironment that support greater growth of cancer cells. They also identified cancer cells that spread to other organs but remain dormant.

This project will work to shed light on this process by integrating two imaging types on very different scales: Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and fluorescence lifetime imaging microscopy (FLIM). The former provides excellent macro-scale imaging of the tumor, while FLIM can add micron-scale resolution of what’s happening at the cellular level. This work will be a key part of the multi-scale thrust of Medical Engineering co-led by Eliceiri that recently resulted in new Morgridge investigators Melissa Skala and Jan Huisken.

These dimensions are important because tumors rely on the healthy environment around them to grow, and can change the environment to make it more compatible. We currently have a limited knowledge of this interaction, and better understanding could lead to treatments that block the metabolic pathways cancer uses to spread.

Erickson-Bhatt is the fourth fellow in the Morgridge Institute’s interdisciplinary postdoctoral fellow program, which is designed to integrate both Morgridge and UW–Madison research teams on biomedical challenges.

From 2012-2015, Erickson-Bhatt was a postdoctoral fellow at the U of I’s Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology. She worked on an application of optical coherence tomography (OCT) imaging that could be used in surgical settings to help surgeons more precisely determine whether a breast cancer tumor had been completely removed. She earned her PhD in 2011 from Florida International University.