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Image is Everything

Alan Nelson ’72 pioneers technology for the early detection of cervical and lung cancers.

USC College alumnus Alan C. Nelson has pioneered 3-D imaging techniques for the detection of cancer. Photo courtesy of Alan C. Nelson.
USC College alumnus Alan C. Nelson has pioneered 3-D imaging techniques for the detection of cancer. Photo courtesy of Alan C. Nelson.

During the course of his career, Alan C. Nelson ’72 has acquired more than 100 technology patents and pioneered 3-D imaging techniques for the detection of cancer. These breakthroughs represent significant steps toward cancer prevention and improved detection. Nelson cautions, however, that the war against cancer is far from over.

Nelson’s research focuses on early detection of cervical and lung cancers. He began to develop his idea for 3-D cell imaging while a student in USC College, where he pursued a bachelor’s in physics. After graduating from the College and earning a Ph.D. in biophysics from the University of California, Berkeley, Nelson still finds that his studies at USC are what continue to inspire him.

“My work at USC gave me many of the tools that contributed fundamentally to the scientific creativity that I so enjoy,” he said. “My research adviser, Professor Darrell Judge, was a true inspiration for technical creativity. My entrepreneurial life began in his laboratory at USC.”

Prevalent on campus during Nelson’s time at USC was the development of early detection methods for breast cancer. Nelson saw how electrostatic imaging, created by passing a beam through a patient that strikes an electrostatically charged plate, could reveal micro-calcifications that might represent cancer. Subsequently, Nelson created the AutoPap, an automated system that detects cervical cancer through image analysis of Pap smear slides.

First used in 1996, the AutoPap was noted for its speed and accuracy against false-negatives when detecting abnormal smears. In fact, because of its high accuracy, major health institutions such as Kaiser Permanente now use the AutoPap.

Nelson then turned his attention to the early detection of lung cancer. In 2001, he founded VisionGate, and through the company developed 3-D imaging technology called the Cell-CT platform.

This scanning system, which identifies lung cancer at the cellular level, produces high-resolution 3-D representations from inside the lungs. After capturing 500 images around a single intact cell, the platform computes the 3-D structure of the cell’s internal anatomy, then analyzes its likelihood of being abnormal.

Nelson explained that the cells lining the inner surface of the lungs are shed in large numbers into sputum that can be checked for abnormality. The advantage of sputum cytology is the detection of cancer cells as well as cells that may become cancerous.

“The morphological signature of each precancerous cell corresponds to the point in time before true cancer is expected to develop,” Nelson said. “This information can be used to risk profile the patient, thus allowing for personalized therapeutic management.”

Like the AutoPap, the Cell-CT uses automated methods, rendering accuracies in excess of 90 percent, eclipsing the more conven- tional and subjective manual method of lung cancer screening. Secondly, the automation abilities of both the AutoPap and the Cell-CT provide results that are repeatable.

“These technologies do help drive toward a reduction in cancer deaths,” Nelson said. “The key issues then become physician adoption and patient compliance.”

Soon, Nelson hopes to develop technology that can detect cancer on a pre-symptomatic level, where a person is diagnosed long before symptoms arise and when preventative methods can be effective.

But while he is a scientist with advanced ideas and methods, Nelson remains a realist. The AutoPap and Cell-CT platforms represent no semblance of a cure for cancer, but they are a significant step toward prevention. In a war waged through individual battles, Nelson’s work provides one more fighting chance.

David Dorion is a 1994 graduate of the Master of Professional Writing Program.

Read more articles from USC College Magazine's Spring/Summer 2010 issue.