Under The Skin

July 7, 1999

Touch your fingertip to a piece of glass in the research lab of Jennifer K. Barton and within seconds she can see a detailed, computerized picture of the blood flow and layers of cells beneath your skin.

It's all part of a process called "optical coherence tomography," or OCT, which ultimately could improve physicians' ability to see such details throughout the body - checking the body's reaction to a newly implanted organ, for instance, or measuring blood flow in diabetes patients.

OCT is similar to ultrasound, but can achieve up to 10 times the resolution of current techniques by using infrared light instead of sound waves to create images. Ophthalmologists already have used OCT in a non-invasive procedure to diagnose diseases in the retina. Now, Barton, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering and electrical and computer engineering, is building a new catheter that will enable physicians to see further inside the body with minimal discomfort to patients.

The catheter - about the size of a pencil lead - "promises to provide much better definition of what's going on inside the body," she said. "It could tell physicians things like whether the lining of unclogged blood vessels is forming irregularly, if any clots are forming, and whether new grafts are healing properly. This kind of information is needed if we are going to further progress in our ability to fight disease."

The Biomedical Engineering Program at The University of Arizona is a graduate-level interdisciplinary program designed to integrate engineering sciences with biology and medicine. Beyond the College of Medicine, research activities involve faculty from the colleges of Agriculture, Arts and Sciences, and Engineering and Mines. The program offers master's of science and doctoral degrees, as well as a graduate-level minor for students in related disciplines.