Ph.D., Medical Physics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1990)
M.S., Physics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1987)
B.S., Physics and Mathematics, University of Nebraska - Lincoln (1985)
For two decades, Rebecca Richards-Kortum has focused on translating research that integrates advances in nanotechnology and molecular imaging with microfabrication technologies to develop optical imaging systems that are inexpensive, portable, and provide point-of-care diagnosis. This basic and translational research is highly collaborative and has led to new technologies to improve the early detection of cancers and other diseases, especially in impoverished settings.
Microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) use micro-scale technology to design low-cost, reusable platforms for point-of-care (POC) diagnostics. When used with contrast agents, these rugged and portable optical imaging systems detect molecular signatures of pre-cancer, assess tumor margins, and monitor a patient’s response to therapy. Current systems are being tested and applied through multidisciplinary collaborations with clinicians and researchers at Rice, the UT M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, UT Health Science Center-Houston, UT at Austin, the University of Arizona, and the British Columbia Cancer Agency. Over the past few years, Richards-Kortum and collaborators have translated these technologies from North America to both low- and medium-resource developing countries (Botswana, India, Taiwan, Mexico, and Brazil).
Richards-Kortum’s research has led to the development of 29 patents. She is author of the textbook Biomedical Engineering for Global Health published by Cambridge University Press (2010), more than 230 refereed research papers and 11 book chapters. Her teaching programs, research and collaborations have been supported by generous grants from the National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, U.S. Department of Defense, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Whitaker Foundation, and the Virginia and L.E. Simmons Family Foundation.
Richards-Kortum is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering (2008), a member of the National Academies Committee on Conceptual Framework for New Science Education Standards (2010-2012), a senior member of the Optical Society of America (2012), and an inaugural member of the National Advisory Council for Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering for the National Institutes of Health (2002-2007). She is an elected fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering (2000), of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (2008), of the Biomedical Engineering Society (2008), and a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors (2014). She was named a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Professor (2002) and received a Professor Renewal grant from HHMI (2006) to establish and expand the undergraduate education program Beyond Traditional Borders (BTB). In 2012, the BTB program was chosen as a model program by Science magazine and awarded the Science Prize for Inquiry-Based Instruction; and in 2013, the hands-on engineering education program was awarded the Lemelson-MIT Award for Global Innovation for bringing life-saving health solutions to the developing world.
Other awards Richards-Kortum has received for her efforts in research and education include: the Y.C. Fung Young Investigator Award from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (1999), the Presidential Young Investigator (1991) and Presidential Faculty Fellow (1992) awards from the National Science Foundation, the Becton Dickinson Career Achievement Award from the Association for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation (1992), the Sharon Keillor Award for Women in Engineering Education (2004) and the Chester F. Carlson Award (2007) from the American Society for Engineering Education, the Vice President Recognition Award by IEEE (2008), and she was named the Pritzker Distinguished Scientist and Lecturer of the Biomedical Engineering Society's 2010 Annual Meeting. Her recent contributions to advancing the applications of optics in disease diagnostics have been recognized by the Celebrating Women in Science Award (2011) from BioHouston, Inc., the Women Leaders in Medicine Award by the American Medical Student Association (2012), and the Michael S. Feld Biophotonics Award by the The Optical Society of America (2014).
The ability to noninvasively monitor cellular processes at the molecular level has the potential to lead to new ways of diagnosing and characterizing disease, developing effective therapeutics, and monitoring response to these treatments. Robust molecular imaging requires two components: a molecular-specific source of signal (typically provided through a contrast agent) and an imaging system to detect this signal. Ongoing projects in Richards-Kortum's Optical Spectroscopy and Imaging Laboratory include:
- Oral Cancer Screening: working in collaboration with Dr. Ann Gillenwater of M.D. Anderson’s Department of Head and Neck Surgery and the Tata Memorial Hospital in Mambai, India, Richards-Kortum’s group has launched an international effort to evaluate screening devices for oral cancer.
- Molecular Imaging: through a team of multidisciplinary researchers, the Richards-Kortum group is developing molecular-specific, optically active contrast agents that can be applied topically to aid in the early detection of cancer. These contrast agents are based on the use of colloidal metal nanoparticles, and have been used in cell culture, tissue culture, animal models, and ex vivo human specimens. The research has demonstrated that the novel optical properties of these agents can enhance the image contrast between normal and precancerous tissue by more than tenfold compared to standard organic fluorescent dyes. Her team is testing the safety and efficacy of these contrast agents and imaging systems to support phase I and II clinical trials in humans.
- High resolution imaging: Richards-Kortum’s group developed the first reflectance fiber optic microscopy system used to image epithelial tissue in vivo. Working with Professor Mike Descour at the University of Arizona and Professor Tomasz Tkaczyk at Rice University, she has developed and tested integrated microfabricated microscopes for in vivo reflectance and fluorescence imaging. These systems are in clinical trials and offer the first in vivo technique capable of imaging the three-dimensional profile of the targeted biomarkers as well as morphologic and architectural biomarkers such as nuclear to cytoplasmic ratio. The emphasis on microfabrication techniques offers an approach to high resolution imaging which is inexpensive, rugged and portable.