UND engineer earns $400,000 national grant

Cutting-edge just about exactly describes electrical engineer Timothy Bigelow’s work with cavitational ultrasound histotripsy. That’s medical lingo for an emerging surgical procedure that aims high-frequency sound waves at cancerous tissue, destroying it safely with no collateral tissue damage. Call it “sounds clean” cancer surgery.

Ultrasound histotripsy is part of the rapidly evolving field of biomedical technology that’s attracting talented young researchers such as Bigelow, who joined the faculty of the School of Engineering and Mines as an assistant professor of electrical engineering in 2005 after earning his Ph.D. at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana in 2004.

“This is really exciting research because of its potential surgical applications in curing cancer and other diseases,” says Bigelow, who recently earned the National Science Foundation’s prestigious Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award. Bigelow was awarded a $400,000, five-year grant for his research project, titled “CAREER: Ultrasound Histotripsy System Development to Improve Cancer Treatment.”

This grant will help Bigelow develop a revolutionary, minimally invasive alternative to traditional cancer surgery. Ultrasound histotripsy focuses high-intensity acoustic waves to “liquefy” cancer tissue, killing tumor cells in the process, Bigelow explains. It’s similar to surgery – the procedure destroys the cancer – but where surgeons previously would slice away diseased tissue, this process removes the cancer without traumatizing surrounding tissue. This new technique, which is still in its basic research stages, points to better rates of patient recovery because there are no surgical openings to disinfect, no wounds to suture, Bigelow notes.

Bigelow will launch his research project in May with the help of Robert Sticca, professor and chair of surgery in the School of Medicine and Health Sciences. Bigelow’s NSF CAREER grant also includes funding to teach North Dakota and rural Minnesota high school math and science educators about the process of hands-on biomedical research and its ethical implications during the summer months.

“NSF CAREER grants only go the best new faculty in the nation, who are able to communicate their cutting-edge ideas to a variety of audiences,” notes Richard Schultz, associate professor and chair of electrical engineering and NSF CAREER awardee in 1996. “We are very lucky to have Tim at UND.”

The NSF describes its CAREER program as an activity that offers its most prestigious awards “in support of the early career development activities of those teacher-scholars who most effectively integrate research and education within the context of the mission of their organization.”

“Such activities,” the NSF says, “should build a firm foundation for a lifetime of integrated contributions to research and education.”