UArizona Health Sciences Researcher Developing New Imaging Technology to Combat Colorectal Cancer

Aug. 19, 2020

Dr. Maria Altbach, at the University of Arizona Health Sciences, is working with industry partners to improve MRI detection of liver tumor spread to expand therapeutic options and improve survival of colorectal cancer patients.


Research team members by MRI scanner (left to right): Scott Squire, Maria Altbach, PhD, and doctoral student Lavanya Umapathy. (Photo: Jane Pruitt/University of Arizona Department of Medical Imaging)

TUCSON, Ariz. – A research team at the University of Arizona Health Sciences is developing a novel imaging technique to detect the spread of small liver tumors to provide better outcomes for patients diagnosed with colorectal cancer.

The National Cancer Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), awarded a $2.2 million, five-year grant to advance the work of Maria Altbach, PhD, professor and vice chair of research in the Department of Medical Imaging at the UArizona College of Medicine – Tucson.

The grant, awarded as part of the NIH Academic Industrial Partnership program, enables scientific and engineering teams at UArizona and Siemens Healthineers to work together to enhance magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) techniques for tumor detection. MRI already is regarded as the most effective imaging technique to find and classify liver neoplasms, the abnormal tissue growth commonly found in the liver when colorectal cancer is present. 

Research funded by this grant seeks to enable development of novel MRI methods to diagnose early spread of tumors as a consequence of colorectal cancer. Since the liver commonly is affected when a patient has colorectal cancer, finding early spread of cancer to the liver is crucial for patient survival. With earlier detection of smaller tumors, patients and physicians have more options for treatments, including non-surgical alternatives, as well as surgical removal of tumors.

Liver mapping developed by UArizona’s Dr. Maria Altbach and her MRI research team. (Image: University of Arizona Department of Medical Imaging)Excluding skin cancers, colorectal cancer is the third-most-common cancer diagnosed in both men and women in the United States, with more than 100,000 new cases of colon cancer and 40,000 new cases of rectal cancer estimated to be diagnosed this year, according to the American Cancer Society. More than 50,000 people are expected to die of colorectal cancer in 2020.

Dr. Altbach and Diego Martin, MD, PhD, a former UArizona professor and department head now at McGill University, are co-principal investigators. Other investigators on the grant are: Ali Bilgin, PhD, a UArizona associate professor of biomedical engineering, electrical and computer engineering, and medical imaging; Hina Arif, MD, associate professor, medical imaging; Kevin Johnson, MRI systems and design director; Denise Roe, DrPH, professor of epidemiology and biostatistics, UArizona Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public HealthVibhas Deshpande, PhD, director, Siemens Healthineers MRI collaborations team; and Boris Mailhe, PhD, research scientist, Siemens Healthineers.

Cancerous liver lesions – black & white (Image: University of Arizona Department of Medical Imaging)Dr. Altbach has received NIH research funding since 1997. Her team develops new MRI acquisition and reconstruction strategies to better quantify disease within time constraints of a clinical MRI examination. Working closely with clinicians and industry partners, they aim to improve the speed and accuracy in the diagnosis of disease. This research is being conducted at the UArizona’s Translational Bioimaging Resource and in the Department of Medical Imaging at Banner – University Medical Center Tucson.

Dr. Altbach, also a member of the UArizona Cancer Center and professor of biomedical engineering in the College of Engineering, was featured last fall in a newsletter from Tech Launch Arizona for a U.S. patent award on the MRI technology involved in this research – along with Dr. Bilgin and two UArizona mathematics doctoral graduates, Chuan Huang, PhD, now at Stony Brook University Neuroscience Institute, and Christian Graff, PhD, now at Micrima Ltd. in Bristol, England. The patent, titled “System and Method for Image Processing with Highly Undersampled Imaging Data,” was granted Aug. 27, 2019. Tech Launch is UArizona’s commercialization arm for inventions stemming from research and innovations developed by faculty and staff.  

Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Cancer Institute, a unit of the NIH, under Award Number R01CA245920. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the NIH.

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NOTE: Photos available here –

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The University of Arizona Health Sciences is the statewide leader in biomedical research and health professions training. UArizona Health Sciences includes the Colleges of Medicine (Tucson and Phoenix), Nursing, Pharmacy, and the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health, with main campus locations in Tucson and the Phoenix Biomedical Campus in downtown Phoenix. From these vantage points, Health Sciences reaches across the state of Arizona, the greater Southwest and around the world to provide next-generation education, research and outreach. A major economic engine, Health Sciences employs nearly 5,000 people, has approximately 4,000 students and 900 faculty members, and garners $200 million in research grants and contracts annually. For more information: (Follow us: Facebook | Twitter | YouTube | LinkedIn | Instagram).