Doctoral Research Leads to Clinical Trial in Head and Neck Cancers

In 2012, Laurie Rich, PhD, arrived at Roswell Park to begin his doctoral work under the mentorship of Mukund Seshadri, PhD, DDS, Chair of Oral Oncology. He arrived at the same time as a very important piece of equipment, and as some crucial research was taking place. The cancer center had just purchased a photoacoustic imaging (PAI) machine combining ultrasound and optics to measure tissue oxygen and hemoglobin levels. The extensive work by Dr. Rich on this machine would advance the research taking place at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center for head and neck cancer patients.

Under the guidance of Dr. Seshadri, Dr. Rich examined the strengths and weaknesses of the machine as a tool in his research, which would bring together the work occurring in the laboratory and the patient experience in the clinic — specifically, the potential patient response to radiation therapy. Until this time, the imaging method had not been systematically investigated nor validated for applications in oncology.

A new clinical trial based on this work is set to begin soon at Roswell Park, and the experience became the topic for Dr. Rich’s doctoral dissertation, entitled “Photoacoustic Imaging of Head and Neck Cancer: Preclinical Optimization and Clinical Translation.”

Never miss another Cancer Talk blog!

Sign up to receive our monthly Cancer Talk e-newsletter.

Sign up!

The potential impact of this research has since been published in journal articles and impressed the academic community beyond Roswell Park. Recently, Dr. Rich’s dissertation was named the winner of the 2017-2018 Northeastern Association of Graduate School's (NAGS) Doctoral Dissertation Award.

Dr. Rich qualified for the contest after winning the UB Outstanding PhD Dissertation Award from among a pool of nominees from all biomedical and life science graduates over a five-year period. He was the sole nominee from the University at Buffalo for the much larger competition that included doctoral candidates from across the Northeast and Canada.

"I was happily surprised and honored to be chosen," Dr. Rich commented. "It is good to represent Roswell Park and UB, and it is validating to know that people see value in what we are doing."

He believes that the work being done in photoacoustic imaging at Roswell Park has broad reach and will help us to better understand whether a patient might respond well to radiation therapy. "It is an inexpensive method and easy to use," explained Dr. Rich. "The alternative is biopsies, which are more invasive."

The dissertation award was presented at the NAGS annual meeting this spring in Quebec, Canada. While Dr. Rich will be moving to Philadelphia to complete his post-doctoral work, he hopes to have his own translational imaging lab and perhaps even return to Roswell Park someday to work with Dr. Seshadri and the colleagues he values so much.