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Diabetes research gets a high tech boost

Toronto, January 14, 2014

By Evelyne Jhung

Dr. Yeni Yucel examines a tissue sample
Dr. Yeni Yucel examines a tissue sample in his lab at the Keenan Research Centre for Biomedical Science. (Photo by Yuri Markarov)

Dr. Yeni Yucel, a pathologist and scientist at the Keenan Research Centre for Biomedical Science, will establish a high-tech imaging system ready to revolutionize diabetes research with a $1 million award from the Canada Foundation for Innovation.

The imaging system will establish St. Michael’s as the first in the world to integrate three pieces of equipment: photo-acoustic in vivo imaging, near-infrared retinal angiography and hyperspectral microscopy. The integrated technology will enable researchers to use sound and light to non-invasively identify diabetes and diabetic complications at the genetic level.

Hyperspectral imaging is what NASA does when it analyzes light reflected from stars to accurately identify elements on the ground. Scientists at St. Michael’s Hospital will use a similar technology called hyperspectral microscopy to more accurately “see” tissue sections, depending on how much light is reflected or absorbed. This will be combined with equipment that will measure sound vibrations induced by laser to allow researchers to also “hear” whether the tissue sample is diseased.

“The research will help us to detect disease early and accurately pinpoint the problems,” said Dr. Yucel. “Bringing these unique technologies together will let us study the causes and effects of diabetes without being invasive.”

Diabetes affects three million Canadians. The small abnormal blood vessels of diabetic patients leak into the eye, kidney and the brain, leading to serious complications, such as blindness, kidney failure and cognitive impairment.

Now, with a single imaging session, scientists can look at the entire body of a live animal and use it multiple times to study organs that are impacted by diabetes – including the pancreas, where insulin is secreted.

“The high-tech imaging system is a first and will strengthen our ability to develop treatments for diabetes,” said Dr. Yucel. “Identifying leaky blood vessels in the eyes, kidney and brain, is a critical step toward developing new treatments to stop the small blood vessels from leaking.”

Current treatment strategies target one complication at a time.

“This technology can be used to identify diabetic complications early, revolutionizing the way we diagnose and treat patients with diabetes,” said Dr. Yucel. He and his research team aspire to identify and address complications in multiple organs simultaneously by integrating multiple fields such as endocrinology, ophthalmology, neuroscience, pathology, physics and computer science.

This new way of approaching the disease will also help to reduce the economic and health burdens of diabetic complications in Canada, he said.

The first pieces of the imaging system will be delivered to the Keenan Research Centre for Biomedical Science in March.

Dr. Yucel’s co-applicants are fellow Keenan Research Centre for Biomedical Science researchers, Dr. Richard Gilbert, an endocrinologist and Canada Research Chair, and Dr. Loch Macdonald, a neurosurgeon and the Keenan Endowed Chair in Surgery. The team includes Dr. Neeru Gupta, an ophthalmologist and Dorothy Pitts Chair of Ophthalmology and Vision Science, and Judy Trogadis, from bioimaging. “This technology is going to help us address common diseases as a team, by bringing together not only eye, brain and kidney specialists, such as Drs. Gupta, Macdonald, and Gilbert, but also physicists and computer scientists who can help quantifying and analyzing the data.”

About St. Michael's Hospital

St. Michael’s Hospital provides compassionate care to all who enter its doors. The hospital also provides outstanding medical education to future health care professionals in 27 academic disciplines. Critical care and trauma, heart disease, neurosurgery, diabetes, cancer care, care of the homeless and global health are among the hospital’s recognized areas of expertise. Through the Keenan Research Centre and the Li Ka Shing International Healthcare Education Centre, which make up the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, research and education at St. Michael's Hospital are recognized and make an impact around the world. Founded in 1892, the hospital is fully affiliated with the University of Toronto.