Story by Suzanne Leaf-Brock
When Richard Robb, Ph.D., emeritus, Physiology and Biomedical Engineering, was 12 years old, his father took him for a tour of the coal mine where he worked. Afterward, young Dr. Robb told his father the mine was the scariest place he’d ever been. His father was glad to hear it.
“He told me that he’d taken me into the mine, so that I would never, ever want to be a coal miner,” says Dr. Robb of his father, Max. “He was very astute about important questions. He was the one who encouraged me to look into computers.”
Dr. Robb took his father’s advice. He became the first person in his family to attend college and eventually earned a Ph.D. in computer science and biophysics from the University of Utah.
A two-year post-doctoral fellowship at Mayo Clinic turned into a 42-year career, where Dr. Robb developed computer systems that could process, analyze and display biomedical image data and discovered ways to use pixels — the tiny elements that make up an image — to aid in diagnosing and treating a variety of diseases and conditions, from cardiac arrhythmias to lung diseases and brain cancer.
“To me, an image is worth much more than a thousand words,” says Dr. Robb. “It’s worth a million words.”
And, sometimes, an image can be priceless. Dr. Robb and his colleagues are developing a software program designed to detect and stage lung cancer based on quantitative analysis of high-resolution X-ray computed tomography (CT) images. That facilitates treatment when it’s most effective.
“The software enables us to find cancer earlier, stage it more accurately and predict the progression of the disease,” says Dr. Robb. “The image becomes the biopsy. The information helps physicians decide how to proceed — whether watchful waiting, surgery or some other form of treatment is warranted.”
When it came to naming the software, Dr. Robb and his collaborators looked to the past and the small, yellow birds used to alert miners to unsafe conditions in coal mines. They called the technology Computer-Aided Nodule Assessment and Risk Yield (CANARY).
“Canaries were used as watch birds in the old coal mine days to alert miners when there was methane gas in the mines, and they needed to get out,” says Dr. Robb. “Our technology is the watch bird for physicians, telling them whether nodules are benign or cancerous.”
CANARY has been licensed, and, pending results of final validation studies, should be available to medical centers in the near future. The software will be tested on other diseases, which could conceivably be used to diagnose and stage cancers in other organs, such as the kidney and the liver, using low-dose X-ray CT image scans, says Dr. Robb.
Mayo Clinic Ventures has helped transfer CANARY and other technologies developed by Dr. Robb out of the lab to worldwide research and clinical utility.
“Our lab has had a close relationship with the Ventures team, and they’ve helped us secure eight patents and license over 25 major technologies,” he says. That resulted in project support and royalties amounting to $15 million returned to Mayo Clinic. And, while that financial return helped support his work, it was never what drove it.
“To me, developing and inventing has nothing to do with money,” he says. “I get the greatest professional and personal satisfaction from creating a useful new tool for solving an unsolved problem. I’m driven to create something new — something that didn’t exist before — that is truly useful.”
And, it doesn’t take advanced imaging to see that Dr. Robb accomplished his goal.