Rebekah Drezek develops optical molecular imaging technologies for the in vivo assessment of tissue pathology and for the quantitative analysis of nanoparticle uptake and interaction within cellular environments.
This basic, applied and translational research emphasizes the design, prototyping, and clinical testing of optical tools and nanomaterials that detect, diagnose, and treat cancer. Her work has included the translation of nanoscale tools, such as gold nanoparticles and quantum dot probes, for targeted molecular imaging and tumor margin assessment as well as the development of photothermal nanoparticles that target and eliminate cancer.
Working collaboratively on a five-year NIH research project grant with Aaron Foster of Bellicum Pharmaceuticals, the Drezek lab is currently investigating gold nanoparticle based delivery of cancer vaccines and adjuvants.
Drezek has served as principal investigator on an inter-institutional Department of Defense Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs (CDMRP) project between Rice and UT MD Anderson Cancer Center to develop needle-based, high-resolution optical imaging approaches and nanoengineered imaging agents for breast cancer applications. She has also served as thrust director of the National Science Foundation's Engineering Research Center on Infrared Technologies for Health and the Environment.
Drezek’s research has been published in 118 papers and has led to four patents. Notable awards she has received include the MIT TR100 Technology Reviews’ selection of 100 Top Young Innovators Award (2004), the Association for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation (AAMI) Becton Dickinson Career Achievement Award (2005), and the Beckman Young Investigator Award (2005). She was one of four scientists invited to speak on nanotechnology at the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) Frontiers of Engineering annual meeting (2006), one of three breast cancer researchers recognized as a U.S. Department of Defense Era of Hope Scholar (2007), and the first bioengineer to receive the American Society for Photobiology Research Award (2008). Drezek is a fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering (2008) and a recipient of the Adolph Lomb Medal from the Optical Society (2009).
Drezek’s Optical Molecular Imaging and Nanobiotechnology Laboratory approaches projects from an interdisciplinary perspective and actively collaborates with clinicians, molecular biologists, biochemists, and other researchers located within Rice and the Texas Medical Center.
In current medical practice, a final diagnosis of cancer or a precancerous condition is achieved only after histopathologic analysis of a directed biopsy. Biopsies are invasive, painful, and expensive. Moreover, many of the complex changes in cellular biochemistry and morphology that accompany the earliest stages of a disease process are not detectable through routine microscopic examination. Emerging photonics technologies provide the exciting opportunity to capitalize on subtle biophysical changes in tissue to provide quantitative, real-time, minimally invasive detection and diagnosis of disease.
Areas of current emphasis include: Developing novel optical spectroscopy and imaging instrumentation for tissue diagnosis; validating optical instrumentation through systematic studies using biological samples of progressively increasing complexity, beginning at the cellular level and culminating in small-scale clinical trials; developing molecular-specific optical contrast agents; conducting studies to elucidate the biophysical origins of measured optical signals; and using computational modeling techniques that capture the interaction of light with biological tissue. Thus understanding the relationships between measured optical signals and underlying tissue biochemistry, morphology, and architecture.