Mar 022008
Authors: Bijah Gibson

Derek Van Uffelen is just a freshman, chasing a degree in environmental health, but he’s innovating like a full-time graduate student.

Van Uffelen, a student involved with the Freshman Scholars Program, recently developed a device that improves the accuracy of radiation treatments for animals.

Van Uffelen’s interest in the field of environmental health began while he was attending high school in Loveland. He recalls a moment when a family friend, an orthopedic surgeon, got him interested at first. He then went on to volunteer at a hospital in his hometown.

“I volunteered at McKee Medical Center,” Van Uffelen said, adding that the work exposed him to various radiation-related technologies. “I was able to watch CT scans and MRIs, which gave me a lot of exposure.”

The Freshman Scholars Program is a competitive organization within the Department of Environmental and Radiological Health Services that provides five freshmen Environmental Health majors with scholarship funds.

The ERHS Web site notes that the scholarship is limited to freshman students who “demonstrate high-academic ability . and express an interest in cutting-edge laboratory research in science with career goals in the environmental, radiological health or health professions.”

Van Uffelen said his work in the Freshman Scholars Program has given him even more experience with radiation technologies.

At the start of the program, each scholar is paired with a faculty mentor to work on a project. Van Uffelen was paired with Dr. Joseph “Fred” Harmon, a medical physicist with 25 years of experience. Working together in the laboratories at CSU’s James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital, Van Uffelen and Harmon began work on a cranial fixation device that would improve the accuracy of radiation treatments for animals in the vet hospital.

Van Uffelen worked in the lab on a weekly basis. Eventually, his work paid off in the form of a prototype, which, Harmon said, is already being utilized in the treatment of animals.

“It’s been working well in clinical testing,” Harmon said. “We have dramatically updated treatment capabilities in the past few months.”

The device is designed to stabilize animals under anesthesia, and allows those treating the animals to position them within millimeters of the same place for every treatment. This consistency in positioning allows radiation treatments to be more accurate and keeps the beams of radiation confined to only the tumors they are aimed at treating. The animals are treated in the Edward L. Gillette Radiation Oncology Suite at the veterinary hospital.

The radiation itself comes from a high-energy linear accelerator with photon and electron beams or, more simply put, the Trilogy.

The machine, which costs approximately $3 million and functions in treating both skin-level and deep tumors, is kept in a vault with five-foot thick concrete walls to keep its radiation beams from adversely affecting laboratory workers and scientists in the facility.

For Van Uffelen, seeing the cranial fixation device in use is truly gratifying. Once the first prototype was complete, he and Harmon had to immediately set to work building a second device to meet the demand for the new technology.

The design of the device is one size fits all – it can be reconfigured to accommodate the various sizes of animals, mostly dogs and cats that are being treated with radiation.

Certain parts of the cranial fixation device must also be personalized for animals, including a mouthpiece that must be molded to fit each individual animal. So far, the cranial fixation devices have been used in the treatments of about 20 animals, which, for Van Uffelen, is the realization of an ambition.

“I love animals,” Van Uffelen said. “I try to find ways to help them.”

Staff writer Bijah Gibson can be reached at

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