Lethbridge prof merging space and cancer research

One Lethbridge university professor found similarities between space studies and cancer detection

Why Lethbridge?” It’s a question David Naylor gets asked all the time. But considering the 60-year-old is an international expert who has played critical roles in not one, but two space missions, you can forgive someone for not immediately grasping why the University of Lethbridge professor, and director of its Astronomical Instrumentation Group, has chosen to make his home in southern Alberta for the past three decades. Naylor, a native of West Yorkshire, England, began working on something called a Fourier transform spectrometer (FTS) as a graduate student at the University of Calgary. That’s where he met and married his wife, Mavis, too.

University of Lethbridge professor David Naylor
photo by Rob Olson

An FTS is a spectrometer that analyzes infrared light to determine the composition of distant stars and galaxies. From there, one project led to another, each bigger than the last; Naylor spent several years working for the European Space Agency (ESA) in the Netherlands. “Basically I’ve spent my career working with [the FTS],” he says.

But when the instrument he was working on failed its risk assessment study, a mandatory phase for any proposed space instrument, and just as his oldest child was about to start school in Holland, a professorship opened up in Lethbridge. Since Mavis hailed from southern Alberta, they decided to head back to Canada and put down some permanent roots. (An additional perk: the city is conveniently located midway between Hawaii and Europe, the two places Naylor most frequently travels to for work.)

“It does make sense when you think about it: the person with the most sensitive instrumentation is an astronomer. ”

Naylor’s most recent claim to fame is working on a state-of-the-art, school-bus-sized spectrometer for the ESA’s recently completed Herschel/SPIRE space observatory. Launched in 2009, this telescope logged more than 25,000 hours studying the universe from a prime vantage point of 1.5 million kilometres from Earth, before shutting down for good in April. Much of the data it gathered will be analyzed back on Earth using Naylor’s software at his Blue Sky Spectroscopy centre in Lethbridge.

The Herschel telescope remains the largest to be launched into space. “Everybody’s heard of the Hubble telescope,” Naylor says, by way of comparison. “NASA does a really good job of PR. Herschel dwarfs the Hubble – it’s the largest telescope that could ever be launched in a single piece.” Naylor is currently leading a Canadian effort on a Japanese-European (JAXA-ESA) space astronomy mission called SPICA that will be a hundred times more sensitive than Herschel.

But what’s really got Naylor’s attention these days is about as far from deep space as you can get. It involves, quite literally, turning the telescopes back around: instead of gazing out on the abyss, Naylor now wants to look into human tissue in the hopes of changing the way we detect cancerous cells here on Earth.

Yet Naylor, who was recently named one of the province’s “50 Most Influential People” by Alberta Venture magazine, insists this isn’t as counterintuitive as it might seem. “Astronomy is the ultimate remote sensing science,” he says. “In other words, everything we know about the universe is understood from measuring light that has travelled billions of years to get to us. The only exceptions are, we’ve been to the moon and dug up some rocks and brought them home, and we’ve been to Mars and dug up some rocks and examined them in situ. For everything else it’s essentially window shopping – we look but we cannot touch.” As it turns out, that approach lends itself to cancer detection, too.

Naylor first heard about this idea in 2009, when he and his team attended a conference outside of their usual orbit (so to speak). During one of the presentations, a group of Taiwanese medical faculty members explained how they’d started borrowing astronomical equipment similar to an FTS to look at cancer biopsies. Their premise was simple: all human cells consume power. But cancerous cells, being more aggressive, consume a lot more power –
enough that the difference could be measured with a sensitive enough detector. “It isn’t immediately obvious,” Naylor says. “It does make sense when you think about it: the person with the most sensitive instrumentation is an astronomer. ”

The Taiwanese team studied human breast cancer implanted in mice then compared the results from different methods of detection. Sure enough, using these modified astronomical instruments – a method called terahertz microscopy – detected significantly smaller masses of cancerous cells, and best of all, could do so almost instantaneously. Were it adapted for humans, the research suggests that patients would not have to wait for days, and at times for false positive or negative results.

It gets better. The technology being used by the group in Taiwan was actually out-of-date. The cutting-edge spectrometers Naylor’s team have access to are, he says, literally one million times more sensitive. “In the time that [the Taiwanese team] had measured one sample from one patient,” he says, “in principle, we could measure samples from every female who ever lived in the history of humanity. Though he hastens to add that this would require many spectrometers and staff to operate them, but nonetheless, the gain is extremely impressive.

But putting spectrometers into action for cancer research is still in the development stage. There’s a huge potential bottleneck in equipment design, logistics, etc., to actually measure samples at peak efficiency, and there are the parameters to keep in mind when designing a version of this technology: it must be small and cheap enough to get into individual doctors’ offices. Naylor is in the process of building a prototype, with the help of his 15-person team in Lethbridge, which includes plucky high school students, PhD candidates and a range of technicians and project managers. And the cancer project is far from his only obligation.

Naylor’s day is also filled with his regular space work: doing rounds with his students, reviewing scientific papers and remembering to call in to teleconferences at all hours of the day. The night, too: “When you link Europe, Japan and Canada,” Naylor says, “it’s kind of a mess. Someone has to get out of bed.”

Working with students, and training the next generation of scientists, is particularly important to Naylor. He speaks at length, and frequently in soccer metaphors, about the necessity of “wing play,” letting them “roam around, really on the edge of the field, and really stretching the limits.” There’s a lot of freedom and trust in his lab. Naylor passes on to his students the wisdom his doctoral supervisor, Professor Alan Clark asserted three decades earlier: “The first year, you will do what I tell you. The second year, we will discuss what you do. And the third year, you will tell me what you’re doing.”

On the medical side of the terahertz project is Jeff Dunn, a professor of radiology at the University of Calgary who also runs the Faculty of Medicine’s Experimental Imaging Centre. The two men first met through what Naylor calls an “arranged marriage,” when the Alberta government suggested they work together on a research grant proposal (which, Naylor adds with a laugh, was then rejected by the province). “David and I started working together in 2005, when we worked on a Pan-Alberta imaging grant that was submitted in 2006,” Dunn says. “The concept of transferring the terahertz space-based research to microscopy evolved from this and resulted in our first grant application on this project in 2008.”

Once the prototype is complete, Naylor and Dunn will be able to start preliminary testing – aided by the tissue bank Dunn has access to via Calgary’s Foothills Hospital – and apply for the funding they need to really set the project in motion. “The problem is always money,” Dunn says.

Both men agree that their collaboration has been a welcome breath of fresh air in a world where scientific disciplines don’t talk to one another nearly as often as they could. Dunn, for instance, notes that terahertz technology is already in use in some areas – notably the controversial, so-called “naked” body scanners at airports. But, so far, it hasn’t been seriously applied to medical diagnostics.

Dunn also praises Naylor for his enthusiasm in bridging that gap between their two specialties. “He’s a very collegiate, collaborative fellow,” Dunn says. “He’s excited about the science and the applications.”

For Naylor’s part, he sees the terahertz project as just the first step in a long, important re-envisioning of how cancer can be detected. Even more tantalizing, however, is the prospect of what other cross-discipline collaborations might yield in the future.

“People can read this and think, ‘Wow,’ ” Naylor says. “ ‘Using space detectors to measure cancer. Isn’t that cool?’ But on the other side of it, it’s so obvious. And it raises the question: how many other synergies are awaiting discovery?”

Questions for a Spaceman

You’re a very busy man. What do you eat for breakfast?
“Cereal. Shredded Wheat is high on the list – often with a few berries on top. And grapefruit juice, religiously.”

What do you do for fun outside of work?
“Carpentry. I have built a lot of furniture for our home. I’m a competent mechanic and enjoy maintaining and servicing my family’s vehicles. I do love to garden, but I don’t have time.”

You travel a lot for work. Where are your favourite places to visit?
“Rome. Florence. Madrid. Stockholm. London.”

Favourite TV show?
“I love The Big Bang Theory, because the physics is actually pretty accurate. The professor who writes the scripting actually put Herschel in an episode [on a whiteboard in the background].

Did you have your own “Eureka!” moment, when science first stuck with you?
“Absolutely. It was a Christmas present. I wanted a tape recorder, and my parents bought me an electronics set. I was probably 10 or 11. When I got into it, I built my own radio, and then I built a transmitter that could transmit Morse code to my brother, who was in another room. I started to realize that this was a kind of magic.”

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