Duke Receives $1 Million Whitaker Foundation Award To Create 'Virtual' Imaging Machines

November 25, 1997

DURHAM, N.C. -- Just as airplane pilots train on flight simulators, engineers and physicians will be able to "test fly" simulations of complex medical imaging equipment, thanks to a $1 million grant to Duke University's biomedical engineering department from the Whitaker Foundation of Rosslyn, Va.

The grant will enable Duke engineers to greatly improve computer software that can provide students and researchers with easy-to-use "virtual" simulations of imaging equipment such as computerized tomography (CT), magnetic resonance (MR), positron emission tomography (PET) and ultrasound. The simulations will enhance training of both biomedical engineers and physicians on these instruments, which are critical to modern medical diagnosis.

Part of this "special opportunity award" will fund a Virtual Imaging Laboratory where students can use advanced workstations and software packages to learn the physics, design and operations of such diagnostic technologies.

"Our vision is to create an unmatched educational and research capability in medical imaging," wrote program director Gregg Trahey in his proposal to the foundation. Trahey is a Duke biomedical engineering professor and ultrasound researcher.

"These 'virtual machines' that mimic the real ones already exist at Duke as learning and research tools. But "they are typically not user-friendly to the novice," said Trahey in an interview. "With the Whitaker award, we hope to improve them for entry-level students. We can create virtual images that ask 'what if' questions like: 'If I tweak the machine this way or that way would the picture get better or worse?'"

The software packages can also use graphics to demonstrate such underlying details as the way high pitched sound waves actually create ultrasound images of internal organs or fetuses in the womb, Trahey said. "For example, we will simulate the physics of ultrasonic interactions with tissue, how the machine sends out pulses, how the pulses travel back, and all the signal processing steps involved in the scanner."

Other potential users would include "such people as radiology medical residents who know the clinical end of things well but don't really want to learn the guts of the machine," he said. The imaging tools will be put on the World Wide Web and made available to other universities and research institutions.

The Whitaker grant will also fund two new biomedical engineering faculty positions and the recruitment of graduate students and postdoctoral researchers to both teach and improve these simulation techniques. And the money will underwrite the creation of five new biomedical engineering courses.

The new program is intended to enhance the biomedical engineering department's interactions with the radiology department at the Duke Medical Center, Trahey said.

Trahey's co-investigators will include G. Allen Johnson and Carey Floyd, two faculty whose principal appointments are in radiology. Johnson heads an innovative research program in MR microscopy, while Floyd studies advanced computer-aided cancer detection methods.

The award, to begin in July 1998, was made under the Whitaker Foundation's program of "Special Opportunity Awards in Biomedical Engineering" which provides up to $1 million for proposals promising high quality projects of lasting benefit with an emphasis on education.

This is the second special opportunity award presented to Duke. The first was made in 1994 to the university's cellular and biosurface engineering center, also based in the biomedical engineering department.

In all, the foundation has given $7.4 million to Duke for research and education.

The nation's largest private sponsor of biomedical engineering research and education, the Whitaker Foundation currently supports more than 400 research projects, 140 graduate fellows and 100 education and internship programs at colleges and universities throughout the nation.

Duke University

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