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CCTSI pilot awardee uses virtual biopsies to improve melanoma detection

Dr. Jesse Wilson
Dr. Jesse Wilson, CCTSI pilot awardee from 2016
Fall 2018

by Wendy S. Meyer

To say that early-career investigator Jesse Wilson, PhD, has recently found success is an understatement. Simply put, he is rocking it. In 2018, the biomedical optics engineer and assistant professor at Colorado State University won a Boettcher Foundation Webb-Waring Biomedical Research Award, and was named the Brownstein, Hyatt, Farber, & Schreck-MRA Young Investigator by the Melanoma Research Alliance (MRA). The MRA’s Young Investigator program supports the work of early career scientists who have novel ideas for combating melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer and the fifth most common cancer in the United States.

Both CSU and the Colorado Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute (CCTSI) can take a measure of pride in Wilson’s success, as he is a homegrown academic researcher. Wilson earned his bachelor’s from CSU and decided to pursue his master’s degree there as well. He became acquainted with “…all the cool research they were doing there…it was like watching Star Trek come to life with lasers.” And CSU was where he ultimately earned his doctorate.

With the funding from his CCTSI pilot grant, Wilson sought to develop a new technique for noninvasive skin imaging using laser microscopy. The current FDA-approved technology produces grainy images that are unrecognizable to pathologists without extensive training. More advanced multiphoton technologies produce clear, recognizable pathology images, but lack FDA approval and require prohibitively expensive ultrafast-pulsed laser sources.

“The Idea behind the CCTSI proposal was, ‘can you get something similar with a cheaper laser source?’” said Wilson. “We were trying to see if we could use a nanosecond timescale to get something similar to the ultra-fast femtosecond scale, using commercially available tools.”

He says that the CCTSI grant gave him more time to think about what he could do in the future that built on his previous work, but that was also novel. “I was thinking of how I could continue the melanoma work in my lab with nanosecond lasers and signal processing. I would probably not have pursued it without CCTSI funding.”

With the award from the MRA, Wilson aims to use inexpensive laser sources with digital signal processing and artificial intelligence to produce multiphoton-like pathology images. In other words, he is devising a virtual biopsy tool to conduct a melanin analysis without having to biopsy the tissue. The proposed technique would use a handheld wand to scan a laser beam across a suspected melanoma to generate an image in real time that shows melanin-specific contrast.

The resulting enhanced virtual biopsy images will be a significant improvement over the products currently available from the approved clinical instrumentation. He seeks to make the multiphoton microscopy procedure less costly by eliminating the inclusion of short-pulse lasers via machine learning and digital signal processing methods.

Wilson will collaborate with the Flint Animal Cancer Center at Colorado State University to validate and test the new technology on canine oral melanomas. Looking to the future, Wilson says he hopes to collaborate with dermatologists and melanoma researchers along the Front Range in order to further develop and refine his technique. 

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