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Rohit Bhargava: My path to Illinois

4/10/2020 9:34:02 AM Rohit Bhargava

Rohit Bhargava
Rohit Bhargava

I grew up in Jaipur, India, a city that is well-known for its architecture. My father is an architect, and I grew up helping him, looking at plans and making blueprints. I was always interested in building things.

In India, all high schoolers take one exam to qualify for the major colleges in engineering. I ranked fourth in the country for architecture. This delighted my father, of course. However, I surprised myself and everyone else by choosing to pursue chemical engineering instead. 

As an undergraduate, I appreciated that the world around us was composed of important molecules – which remain largely hidden from our eyes that can only sense shape and color. In my doctoral studies, I was inspired to develop a microscope that could measure molecular composition in addition to shape – a technique we now call chemical imaging.

During my grade 10 exams, I made a bet with my parents that if I scored the highest points in the school, I could get a motorcycle. I earned the motorcycle – and gained a lifelong love for speed.
During my grade 10 exams, I made a bet with my parents that if I scored the highest points in the school, I could get a motorcycle. I earned the motorcycle and gained a lifelong love for speed.

After graduating, I went to the National Institutes of Health as a postdoctoral fellow, where we used chemical imaging to study cancer. I grew interested in cancer and how it is diagnosed. I was convinced that there was a better way than how we diagnosed it back then.

As I learned more, I could imagine many ways engineering could be applied to cancer – optics, lasers, 3D printing – but where could this kind of multidisciplinary innovation thrive?

These ideas could only be practiced at an interdisciplinary university, because cancer knows no boundaries. So in 2005, when I learned that Illinois had formed a new department of bioengineering, I applied right away. Two months later, I became the first external hire in the department.

Illinois technology has transformed lives, from the transistor to the LED, the MRI and the web browser. I knew we had the science and people to transform cancer too, if only we could bring them together. In 2010, I led the formation of the Cancer Community at Illinois on this vision, with no blueprint to guide us.

 As the concept of converging engineering, technology and health gained momentum and support on campus, I served on committees guiding the development of the engineering-based Carle Illinois College of Medicine and the Interdisciplinary Health Sciences Institute. The Cancer Center at Illinois was formalized as a campuswide institute in 2018, and I am honored to continue leading the effort as its first director.

Breast cancer tissue imaged in unseen colors. On the left is the standard method using dyes. On the right is a new technique we developed that gives standard microscopes state-of-the-art infrared capabilities, with results in 30 minutes. The pink is cancer.
Breast cancer tissue imaged in unseen colors. On the left is the standard method using dyes. On the right is a new technique we developed that gives standard microscopes state-of-the-art infrared capabilities, with results in 30 minutes. The pink is cancer.

Our mission is to translate engineering and basic science innovations to cancer care. This focus sets us apart from other cancer centers in the nation, whose guiding focus is clinical care.

For a century, the gold standard of diagnosis has been to add chemical dyes to biopsies, and then a pathologist looks for abnormalities. It’s time-consuming and very subjective. My group has pioneered chemical imaging techniques using light instead of dyes, truly seeing cancer in colors that we were not able to previously.

We are developing artificial intelligence to analyze data from our imaging tools so that we can quickly assess the severity of disease. Tomorrow, we will use quantum computing on these data to understand cancer for individual patients.

We are developing 3D-printing techniques to create tissue scaffolds and tumor environments with a variety of materials, from plastics to sugars that dissolve away.

Imagine a physician trying to figure out which treatment would work best for a patient. Today, we try formulaic treatments on a patient and only find out weeks later whether the treatment was effective. Instead, we want to print out a replica of a patient’s tumor and its surrounding tissues using their own cells and testing different drugs. We could then give them a precise, individualized treatment plan that works from day one.

 

Traditional 3D printers lay down layers of plastic on top of each other. Our printer can essentially draw in midair, creating structures that mimic complex biological frameworks.

CCIL scientists are developing tools for precision medicine, real-time surgical imaging, early detection, new drugs and more. We support this progress with educational programs and resource development. Pictured: Professor Rohit Bhargava and graduate student Craig Richard.
CCIL scientists are developing tools for precision medicine, real-time surgical imaging, early detection, new drugs and more. We support this progress with educational programs and resource development. Pictured: Professor Rohit Bhargava and graduate student Craig Richard.

We have begun the process of obtaining National Cancer Institute designation. We would be the first NCI-designated basic center focused on technology. We also would be the first new basic center designated since 1987.

We already are having an impact through collaborations with our clinical partners: the University of Illinois at Chicago, the Mayo Clinic and Carle Health. We can make an even greater impact with the Discovery Partners Institute. Cancer research can be a driver of DPI, and DPI is the gateway to getting our cancer technology to the world.

Whenever anyone thinks of technology in cancer, I want them to think of Illinois. I believe that technology can make cancer care more humane. Our tools can help eliminate guesswork for physicians, eliminate waiting for patients, and accelerate the search for cures to enable precise and personally fulfilling care for everyone, regardless of their socio-economic status. At Illinois, we are proud of the ways we’ve changed the world. Now we have a chance to revolutionize the cancer technology industry with the Cancer Center at Illinois.

After all this time, I'm still interested in building things.