How Marc Weber, Hartmut Gemmeke and Nicole Ruiter turn basic research into new products for the world market.
The search for answers to fundamental questions in our universe does not leave Prof. Marc Weber peace. With his for Process Data Processing and Electronics at KIT, the physicist is on trail of the tiniest particles that form the basis of all existence. The team develops particle detectors and the fastest trigger and readout electronics for the largest data volumes. By doing so, they are helping to measure the mass of neutrinos, detect high-energy cosmic rays, enable a nuclear fusion reactor and search for the dark matter that makes up 25 percent of our universe. This brisk activity seems far removed from the need and demand of commercial markets. Nevertheless, the institute develops forward-looking products for a wide variety of industries and generates ten percent of KIT's licensing income. How does that work?
"For basic research, we develop methods and gain knowledge that we then reuse for completely different purposes," explains Prof. Weber. Sometimes chance plays a role – it is not always obvious that the fundamental knowledge from large-scale scientific projects is also suitable for use in an intelligent camera, in a pipeline inspection robot, in car batteries, in a lab-on-a-chip system for medical analytics and the food industry, or for a motion detector. The institute has made indispensable contributions to all of these products. "Nevertheless, the product idea is always only the first and simplest step – the realization is often a major challenge and can take years," says Weber.
It's an experience that Prof. Hartmut Gemmeke and Ph. D. Nicole Ruiter can confirm. They are driving the development of a completely new technique for breast cancer diagnosis. Ten percent of women in the Western world develop breast cancer, and about 30 percent of them die of metastases. When diagnosed using classical methods, a tumor in the breast is on average one centimeter in size. At the Institute of Process Data Processing and Electronics, scientists have built the world's first 3D ultrasound computed tomography scanner, which allows high-resolution images of the breast.
"The product idea is always only the first and easiest step – the realization often presents us with great challenges and can take years."
Hartmut Gemmeke is Marc Weber's predecessor as head of the institute, and a few years before he retired, he and a well-known physician had the idea of building a device for breast cancer detection that would measure as precisely as an MRI and be as inexpensive as an X-ray machine for mammography. The project has kept him and then-doctoral student Nicole Ruiter hooked since that idea was first floated in 2000 – and with the support of Marc Weber, the small team is now about to embark on its second large-scale clinical trial with its device for ultrasound-guided breast cancer diagnosis. "The device has the potential to detect much smaller tumors than before," says project leader Nicole Ruiter of IPE. "We want to diagnose tumors on average so early that the probability of metastasis is only five percent."
Technologically, the project presents a major challenge. The method is based on 2,000 ultrasound transducers arranged in a water-filled examination basin. "The idea of using ultrasound tomography for tumor detection has existed since the late 1960s. Until recently, however, it was not possible to process the amount of data generated by the measurements in a reasonable period of time," explains Nicole Ruiter. When an image is captured, large amounts of raw data are generated that are subsequently used to reconstruct three-dimensional images. During a measurement, the ultrasound sensors deliver a data rate of around 15 gigabytes per second, which is equivalent to about 20 CDs per second. Meanwhile, the device, which has been approved for clinical trials and is a type of reclining bench with a recessed examination basin, can measure tissue changes down to below a size of 0.2 millimeters within three minutes. Not only is the altered tissue structure detected, as with mammography, but it is also possible to distinguish whether the tissue is benign or malignant. This is a success that could save the lives of many patients: The earlier breast cancer is detected, the better the chances of cure. An initial pilot study with ten patients has been very successful.
"In our work, we draw on at least 25 years of fundamental knowledge in ultrasound technology, and for many areas of development – from the sensor technology for acquiring the 3D data to electronic data processing to reading and evaluating the data – we use techniques that we have previously developed for other projects in basic research," says Gemmeke.
Even if the institute's focus is not on product development and projects such as 3D ultrasound tomography were developed "on the side," Marc Weber attaches great importance to the combination of the fundamental and the concrete: "As a physicist, I am looking for the indivisible and am interested in researching the laws of the microcosm. But there is also a longing for the practical and for projects with a clear social relevance. That makes it important for me to look for broad applications for our technologies."