January 13, 2005
"Dr. Banu Onaral has been cited by The Philadelphia Inquirer as one of the top ten people to watch in the Philadelphia region in 2005."
Britton Chance is the winner of prizes ranging from an Olympic gold medal to the National Medal of Science, a Renaissance man with pioneering discoveries in biomedical optics. At 91, he still rides his bike to work and hones the sailing skills that earned him the gold in 1952.
Banu Onaral was a toddler in her native Turkey that year. Now, at 55, she is an engineer who combines ivory-tower and entrepreneurial brilliance to create new tools for sensing, imaging and manipulating brain waves, blood flow, and other biological signals.
These two - Chance, a professor emeritus at University of Pennsylvania, and Onaral, director of Drexel University's School of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems - have joined forces to develop something every woman could use: a battery-operated breast-cancer screening device.
The pocket-size optical scanner uses near-infrared light to detect variations in the breast's blood supply that occur when a tumor grows.
The scanner would supplement, not replace, mammographic X-rays; it would enable women to check in the privacy of their homes for potential problems that warrant further testing. Many women now skip routine mammograms because the breast-squishing exams are unpleasant.
"I shouldn't say this, but they call it 'the slammer,' " Chance chuckled.
He had already invested three years in the prototype device when he teamed in 2001 with Onaral, who oversees 11 research laboratories.
"I say to my students, all of us combined cannot beat him," Onaral says. "He's very sharp, extremely innovative. And he's also very competitive. He's really our mastermind."
Last summer, her own drive was fueled by the loss of a close friend to breast cancer. She realizes that getting government approval of the scanner will take millions of dollars and at least five more years of testing.
But she is already looking ahead, eager to tap the vast potential of the near-infrared technology - to measure healing after stroke, brain activity, and even to explore memory.
"We already can use it in surgery to monitor the level of consciousness," she says.