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Research Showcase - Randy Tagg, Physics

Students play key role in physics/medical research project

For Randy Tagg, associate professor of physics, the statistics are stark and compelling. Oral cancer is the sixth most common form of cancer in the United States with just a 50 percent survival rate five years after treatment.

Nearly four years ago he coauthored a paper with otolaryngologist Arlen Meyers, MD, and colleague Masoud Asadi-Zeydabadi, that explored current methods for detecting this virulent strain of cancer. As a result, they wondered whether a noninvasive procedure to determine the elasticity of soft oral tissue (“how firm or squishy the tissue is”) might provide some clues about the presence of cancer. 

With the help of a grant from the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance and a team of enthusiastic students, Tagg set out to see if the idea had any validity.

Tagg first recruited Cherry Creek High School students—Julia Buzan and Joseph Smith—to see if they could produce and measure surface waves on gelatin acting as simulated skin. The students were able to create an award-winning science project that did just that.

Enter Katharine (Kit) Meddles, a fourth-year UC Denver medical student, who assisted Tagg in bumping up the frequency and shortening the wavelengths of the detection technique using a laser. Tagg also recruited physics senior Carlos Romero, who wrote computer modeling software on gel behavior that showed if there was an abnormality under the surface of the gel, like a tumor, it had a certain effect on the waves in the simulation. Tagg has since enlisted physics senior Matt Riley to conduct a senior lab project to further develop an optical system for detecting high frequency waves on the gel surface.

“We’ll have to get back to the ultrasound delivery method once we’ve refined our detection method,” says Tagg. “I want to do some physics here too…totally separate from the medical application, and just show that our method of exciting the surface waves can generate data that corresponds well to what people have recently published.

“I’m hoping we can get some physics students to explore and refine that and get something published there. At the same time we’re trying to pursue the practical aspect of making a useful medical device.”

Reprinted from 2009 issue of Pinnacle.