UI professor chosen to direct breast cancer center

UI professor chosen to direct breast cancer center

URBANA – Dr. Stephen Boppart understands all too well the worries and hopes that come with a diagnosis of cancer.

A survivor of cancer himself, he's devoted his research to the detection of this dreaded disease at its earliest level – when cellular changes are just beginning to form in the body – and doctors still have the best shot at a cure.

Now Boppart is bringing his research mission to Carle Foundation Hospital, as the first director of the Mills Breast Cancer Institute under construction on the Carle campus in Urbana.

Dedicated to both breast cancer research and comprehensive treatment, the institute is set to open in the spring of 2008.

Boppart's appointment will take effect Jan. 1, and he will remain in his current capacity as a researcher and electrical engineering professor at the University of Illinois, he said.

Also a medical doctor, Boppart has the unique background in both research and clinical medicine that Carle went looking for in a national search for a director, according to Dr. James Leonard, chief executive of The Carle Foundation.

"Once Steve threw his hat into the ring, it was clear that he had everything we needed," Leonard said.

Boppart – who holds a doctorate in medical/electrical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an M.D. from Harvard Medical School – completed his residency in internal medicine at Carle hospital.

Carle has already started putting technology resulting from Boppart's research to work in the operating room, on selected breast cancer surgeries.

The technology, called optical coherence tomography, is similar to ultrasound, but it works by directing light onto tissues and measuring the intensity of reflections to find tumors and make sure all cancer cells were removed in surgery, Carle officials said.

Boppart said the imaging isn't intended to replace mammography as a general screening for breast cancer, but it can help pinpoint very small abnormalities that are difficult to find.

Future applications of this technology will be used to help the surgeon tell how far the cancer has spread without having to remove lymph nodes, and to better guide the doctor inserting a needle into a tumor to collect sample tissue, he said.

A 38-year-old native of the northern Illinois town of Harvard, Boppart said he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma in 1990, and underwent a bone-marrow transplant the following year.

While he is now cancer-free, Boppart said his experience as a patient has helped him as a doctor and researcher because he understands what cancer patients go through.

"This has certainly been a contributing factor for my motivation for this work, and it also enables me to relate to patients," he said.

The problem with the way breast cancer is currently diagnosed is that it often catches breast cancer too far along, Boppart said.

"A mass detected in a mammogram or detected in a physical exam has actually been there and developing for months or years," he said.

Boppart said he plans for researchers and doctors to work together at the Mills institute, to develop other technology that can be used for early detection in routine screenings.

He also plans for the Mills institute to be a place where a patient coming in with an abnormal mammogram will be able to leave the same day with a diagnosis and treatment plan.

Doug Mills, who with his late wife, Linda, donated $10 million for the new center, said he is thrilled about Boppart's appointment.

"Linda would have approved 100 percent," he said. "She thought very highly of him."

Mills said his wife, who died in September of breast cancer, had met Boppart a few times in connection with plans for the breast cancer institute.

Leonard said he believes the new facility can occupy a prominent place among medical institutions.

"What I think can happen, my vision of it, is that we will develop a nationally, internationally known center that is engaged in the early detection and treatment of breast cancer," he said.

At the same time, Leonard said, it's important to keep patient care the top priority.

"It's still all about health care, and it's about how our lives are better because of it," he said. "We're not going to lose track of that."