Hedar Al-Terke has been a pioneer in new cancer imaging technology using microbubbles. He received the 2023 Physics Innovation of the Year award from the Department of Applied Physics at Aalto University. Photo: Gavin Pugh, Aalto University

Science and technology

A groundbreaking method for early cancer diagnosis has been developed by researcher Hedar Al-Terke from Aalto University. This innovative technique, utilizing enhanced microbubbles in conjunction with ultrasound imaging, marks a significant advancement in cancer detection and promises to be more affordable and widely accessible.

Originally from Iraq and now based in Finland, Al-Terke's interest in medical technology led to the development of this novel method.

The microbubbles, typically used as a contrast agent in ultrasound scans, resonate intensely under ultrasound, appearing as bright white. However, their short lifespan in the bloodstream and lack of direction control limited their effectiveness. Al-Terke's patented protein coating significantly extends the lifespan of these microbubbles to an hour and ensures they selectively attach to cancer cells, not to other tissues. This selective attachment makes cancer cells stand out in ultrasound images, enhancing early detection.

The technology includes a handheld ultrasound device, which is currently being refined for better local differentiation. Unlike other cancer imaging methods, this ultrasound-based approach aims to improve local resolution at a fraction of the cost, making it an attractive alternative to more expensive magnetic resonance or computed tomography scans.

Smart Bubbles, the project arising from Al-Terke's research, received substantial commercialization funding from Business Finland last summer. Initial tests of Smart Bubbles are underway in OtaNano's vast microscope under cryogenic conditions. The next step for the project is to establish a company by the end of 2024, with preclinical trials already in progress in collaboration with the University of Oulu. The ultimate goal is to seek investor funding for clinical trials by 2025.

Beyond cancer diagnostics, Al-Terke sees potential applications for the Smart Bubbles platform in areas like drug delivery. His willingness to ask "so-called stupid questions" and collaborate with his team opens up broader possibilities for this method.

Al-Terke was awarded the 2023 Physics Innovation Award from Aalto University's Department of Applied Physics for the Smart Bubbles project. He is part of Professor Robin Ras's research group, which is a part of the LIBER center of excellence focusing on hybrid materials inspired by living functions. Key collaborators in Al-Terke's research include Professor Jaakko Timonen from Aalto University, Arja Paananen leading a research group at VTT, VTT's leading researcher Jussi Joensuu, and postdoctoral researcher Gregory Beaune.

The Smart Bubbles research utilized facilities from OtaNano, Finland's national research infrastructure for micro-, nano-, and quantum technology.