Viktor Gruev creating sensors that capture polarization & multi-spectral properties of light.

From operating room to Great Barrier Reef, Gruev's imaging technology has impact

ECE Associate Professor Viktor Gruev, who joined the Illinois faculty in August, is well known for integrating novel nano-materials with CMOS or CCD technology to achieve very sensitive imagers. As a faculty member at Washington University in St. Louis, his lab pioneered compact polarization and multi-spectral imaging sensors. This technology has successfully undergone clinical translation in the operating room, helping physicians diagnose early signs of cancer, and has been deployed to the Great Barrier Reef to better understand marine life.

Viktor Gruev
Viktor Gruev
At Illinois, Gruev will continue designing new imaging sensors that can capture polarization and multi-spectral properties of light. Gruev’s inspiration came from studying natural biological systems, specifically the visual system of the Mantis Shrimp. Working with marine biologists who decoded the structures of the Shrimp’s visual system, Gruev simulated these structures in a cleanroom setting and figured out the function of these complex nano-structures.

After earning his PhD in electrical engineering in 2004 from Johns Hopkins University, Gruev worked as a postdoc for two years at the University of Pennsylvania before joining the Washington University Computer Science and Engineering faculty in St. Louis. With support from an Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR) grant, Gruev worked on incorporating novel nano-materials into polarization imaging sensors.

His first major breakthrough came with the invention of a novel polarization camera. However, he never would have guessed that he would soon be working with marine biologists across the globe in Australia. “ Sometimes you get too deep into the technology, materials and the nanofabrication; you become divorced from the real-life application side,” he explained. “So I Googled who was working on polarization and multi-spectral imaging and found many phenomenal people from different disciplines: medicine, marine biology, physics, you name it.”

Reaching out to experts in these fields, Gruev found great need for a camera that could see in real-time, high-definition polarization phenomena. Marine biologists needed such a camera in order to conduct behavioral studies of aquatic life that have unique visual systems. However, there was no way to bring an entire lab underwater to study these creatures in their natural habitat. Gruev eventually ended up working with an undergraduate student to design a waterproof casing for the camera that they then used to collect preliminary data at the Great Barrier Reef, data that helped him secure him 5 years of NIH funding to work on bio-inspired sensors.

In medicine, being able to image and clearly see diseases is a binary phenomenon that can mean the difference between life and death – you either see the disease or you can’t. Gruev’s most recent work, which he considers to be his biggest research achievement, is his translation of bio-inspired sensors to biomedical imaging. “Wherever there exists pre-cancerous tissue, light is scattered more randomly; cancer tissue tends to have chaotic cellular structures that scatter an diffuse light, whereas healthy tissue is organized and has nice spectral and polarization signatures.” said Gruev. This technology is currently being applied in colonoscopies and endoscopies.

Currently, Gruev is incorporating a multispectral camera to image cancer tissue in real-time. His team has developed a whole platform from scratch: a physician wears video goggles that have special multi-spectral cameras that superimpose highlighted tissue areas over real-time video during surgery.

“We’ve translated this into the operating room during breast cancer surgeries to enable the physician to correctly identify lymph nodes or particular organs and successfully remove all primary and secondary tumors,” he said. “It’s a different type of problem that we solved: going from the developing nanostructures in the cleanroom, to integrating these photonic crystals with sensors, to finally translating an idea to the operating room.”

For Gruev, the move to Illinois was a strategic one. “[Illinois] is a top engineering school and it was very attractive for me to come work with brilliant undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty from the many excellent engineering departments,” he said, “I also still cooperate with a leading medical school at Washington University, so I’m trying to balance the best of both worlds.”

Added Gruev: “It’s fun to be in such an engaging environment, to see all the energy in these buildings. You see everyone working very hard at all hours of the day, and you see the excitement that everyone has for their work and studies.”