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Emad Ebbini: An Array of Possibilities

Emad Ebbini, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, has been intrigued by electronics and communications systems since high school. During the late 1970s, the TV in Ebbini’s living room needed constant color adjustment, and he learned how to make these adjustments by dabbling with the color control circuitry. He fell in love with the field.

“I was able to tell that the colors are adjusted based on my measurements without looking at the TV screen,” Ebbini said. “I wanted to learn more about the theory and the design principles for these systems.”

As a college undergraduate, Ebbini was firmly focused on a career in telecommunications engineering. That is, until his dad passed away in 1985. “The doctors did one surgery to remove the tumor on his kidney,” Ebbini said. “Six months later, the cancer came back and there was nothing they could do.”

“During the ultrasound, we were looking at the profile of my daughter’s face, and I thought: Why don’t we do guided imaging and therapy with the same device?”

--Emad Ebbini

Shortly after his father’s passing, Ebbini got an offer that felt a lot like fate. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was hiring a research assistant to help in developing phased array systems for thermotherapy, wherein body tissue is exposed to high temperatures to kill cancer cells.

“I thought if this could help patients like my dad, then I would like to be part of it,” Ebbini said, whose doctoral thesis was the first to introduce the concept of optimal use of phased arrays in thermotherapy.

By the mid-1990s, Ebbini and his wife were expecting their first daughter, and a visit to the clinic crystalized the vision that has guided his research efforts ever since. “During the ultrasound, we were looking at the profile of my daughter’s face, and I thought: Why don’t we do guided imaging and therapy with the same device?”

That’s when the idea of a dual-mode ultrasound array first captured his imagination. The only problem was that the enabling technologies for this concept were not in place to make it a reality.

Ebbini joined the College of Science and Engineering as a professor in 1998. Over the next few years, Ebbini and his students worked on experiments to demonstrate the feasibility of his concept. His laboratory became the first to demonstrate the use of dual-mode ultrasound arrays in performing image-guided noninvasive surgery in excised tissue samples.

Millions of people undergo surgery every day and countless lives are improved in the process. But for some patients, conventional surgery may not be an option (for example, some late-stage liver cancers.) Other options such as radiation and chemotherapy have their own risks and limitations.

Ebbini intends to change all that with the dual-mode ultrasound array. The noninvasive device, which has been compared to a lightsaber or a magic wand, involves no blood, no drugs and no ionizing radiation. It can also be used to improve the efficacy of drugs and reduce the side effects of chemotherapy.

“The dual-mode ultrasound array approach is uniquely suited to maximize the safety and efficacy of noninvasive surgery,” Ebbini said. As a result, patients can get treatment and be back in action within a matter of days.

Similar in look and feel to the ultrasound systems used during his wife’s pregnancy and yet today, the system is essentially a “one-stop shop” for everything from pre-treatment imaging, to monitoring and control during treatment, to damage assessment after treatment.

The array is expected to be ready for human use by 2015, first for surgeries related to arteriosclerosis, and eventually for many other diseases. Needless to say, it’s a game-changer with infinite possibilities.

“When we first started this research decades ago, I was confident that the real-time signal processing would be available some day,” Ebbini said. “We had a vision and we were crazy enough to believe it would work.”