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A new vision for ultrasound imaging

Ultrasound research specialist and 2023 MIT Excellence Award winner Nicole Henning adapts ultrasound technology for more sensitive, less invasive imaging for disease modeling.
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Nicole Henning standing in front of some large scientific images displayed in a hallway
Nicole Henning in the Koch Institute Public Galleries
Photo courtesy of the Koch Institute.

Nicole Henning did not foresee becoming an expert in ultrasound imaging.

Before joining Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT as an ultrasound research specialist at the Preclinical Imaging and Testing (PI&T) Core Facility, she earned a degree in animal sciences and aspired to go to veterinary school. Instead, she found herself working in animal husbandry, and soon, in facility and project management. While she enjoyed her work, it wasn’t enough.

“I wanted to do more research, particularly helping with other people’s research,” Henning says. “I wanted to try something new. I wanted more freedom to learn to do new things and experiment in my own way.”

Virginia Spanoudaki, scientific director of the PI&T, had a vision for implementing a new ultrasound imaging method. The core facility had an ultrasound machine that could potentially be used to produce larger quantities of less-biased information about the effects of different therapies on mouse models of cancer than other standard imaging techniques. However, one key ingredient was missing: dedicated research staff who could operate and improve the system for research use.

Spanoudaki’s ideal candidate would be someone who could learn not just imaging, but also someone who cared about animals and could make the most of the ultrasound technology. The PI&T is part of the Robert A. Swanson (1969) Biotechnology Center (SBC), which not only provides access to highly specialized, cutting-edge technology to scientists and engineers at the Koch Institute, the MIT community, and beyond, but offers expert consulting and training that help researchers run their experiments in ways that maximize the technology being used, as well as assistance with analyzing data, asking new questions, and planning the next experiments.

Henning’s high level of initiative and motivation, and willingness to experiment and educate herself, made her a perfect match. She would become an expert and teacher in ultrasound imaging very quickly.

“This turned out to be the perfect job. In retrospect, I feel lucky,” says Henning.

Getting a feeling for the technology

Immediately after joining the PI&T in 2019, Henning got to know and tinkered with the ultrasound imaging system. While she had no background in the technology and faced a steep learning curve, she sought training from the Fujifilm specialists who supplied the machine to the core.

Ultrasound imaging uses sound waves to take real-time images of the body. It is often used in hospitals to track fetal development in pregnancies, or to diagnose diseases in various organs. In cancer research, ultrasound imaging may be used to study cancer development or to screen drugs for their effect on tumors or tissues.

Henning decided to take ultrasound’s capabilities one step further by developing ultrasound-guided injection (USGI), a technique that can be harnessed to initiate disease for modeling purposes or administer drugs into deep tissues. Previously, delivering these to such hard-to-reach tissues inside the body required invasive surgeries. However, such surgeries can become a confounding factor in drug screenings and disease processes, as immune responses involved in healing the surgical wounds may hinder or boost the disease process or efficacy of the drugs being tested. The key advancement of USGI is that it is a minimally invasive technique, combining ultrasound imaging to view the inside of the body to make precisely targeted injections into tissues, for instance into the lungs, liver, or pancreas.

Laura Maiorino, a postdoc in the Koch Institute laboratory of MIT Professor Darrell Irvine, was endeavoring to develop local therapies for early-stage lung cancer with the idea of circumventing toxicity while maximizing the anti-tumor response. She wondered, “Can we use ultrasound guidance to inject our therapies inside the lung, inside a tumor?” When she approached Henning with this question, the answer was immediate: “We should try.”

“And that has been Henning’s answer to many questions since,” says Maiorino.

After months of digging through scarce literature on the topic and hands-on refinements, Henning and Maiorino successfully developed a precision method to deliver payloads to a target region in the lung — a technique that allows scientists to test local treatments for lung cancer preclinically. Maiorino believes that “Henning’s direct impact on the development of a new therapeutic approach on its way to human testing so quickly is truly an exceptional accomplishment.”

Liang Hao, formerly a postdoc and now a visiting scientist in the lab of MIT Professor Sangeeta Bhatia at the Koch Institute, also worked with Henning to apply the USGI technique to cancer, in this case to develop colorectal cancer metastasis models for drug screenings. Before the use of Henning’s USGI technique, developing such models relied on invasive and time-consuming surgical methods. Together with Hao, Henning was able to cut down the time by over 90 percent.

“Nicole is beyond an ultrasound expert in our study,” Hao says. “She is not only the powerhouse of the experimentation, but also actively brings up brilliant ideas that significantly strengthen the science. We are lucky to have her in the core facility and contributing to our research project.”

A model of innovation

Once the USGI technique had been developed, it could have been just a job well done for Henning. Through outreach to scientists working at the Koch Institute and presenting at last year’s American Association for Laboratory Animal Science National Meeting, Henning is working to make USGI readily available to any scientist who can benefit from it. In the near future, she will also publish the technique protocols on an open access website to make them freely available.

“Her can-do attitude and infectious enthusiasm have attracted several new users to this minimally invasive approach, which is set to become a gold standard for disease modeling,” Maiorino says.

Henning’s collaborative research endeavors were recognized on June 8 with the 2023 MIT Excellence Award, where she was presented with the award by Chancellor Melissa Nobles in the category of “Innovative Solutions: Collaborating for Results.” This award is annually given to recognize exceptional staff at MIT who help create novel solutions for challenges and embrace change as opportunities for growth.

“Henning is not just offering service, she is offering dedicated collaboration,” says Spanoudaki. “MIT’s signature ‘can-do’ attitude is well-embodied by Henning. Through active collaborations driven by curiosity and perseverance, Henning has developed a technology that has sparked a paradigm shift for the field of disease modeling and drug screening. Her enthusiasm to engage with others highlights the strength of academic environments, especially at the SBC, where collaboration and convergence creates impactful science.”

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