The University Record, April 3, 2000

New research center seeks to see cancer more clearly

By Kara Gavin
Health System Public Relations

Cancer often lurks deep inside the body, going undetected and untreated far too long. Even after it’s discovered and treatment begins, doctors may not be able to tell for months if their efforts are working well enough or at all.

A new research center at the Health System will tackle these crucial issues using sophisticated medical imaging technology. With $4.1 million in funding from the National Institutes of Health, U-M researchers will study new ways to see cancer and the effects of treatment better and faster than ever before.

They’ll also use imaging techniques to spot important molecular events during cancer’s growth, perhaps laying the groundwork for new therapies.

Called a center for molecular imaging, the effort involves faculty from the Medical School’s departments of Radiology and Radiation Oncology, and other disciplines involved in cancer and medical imaging. Based within the Comprehensive Cancer Center, it will build on existing imaging capabilities there by adding new equipment and staff.

The center will allow scientists to non-invasively see cancer in animals using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and spectroscopy (MRS), positron emission tomography (PET), computed tomography (CT) and a new technique based on the compound that makes fireflies glow. The U-M is the first academic institution in the world to acquire a Xenogen bioluminescence scanner.

“We hope to combine recent advances in medical imaging with new knowledge about cancer’s molecular workings to give physicians and patients the information they need to prevent, find and treat cancer faster and more effectively,” says associate professor of radiology Brian Ross, who will co-direct the center’s efforts along with Alnawaz Rehemtulla, assistant professor of radiation oncology.

Human cancer patients can’t fit into the equipment being purchased for the new center—it’s designed especially for mice and rats that will act as test subjects for new ideas about how to see cancer more clearly.

The center’s miniature imaging machines should yield big results. Already, past U-M animal research on imaging techniques is being applied to patients using human-size imaging equipment and digital image processing capability at the Comprehensive Cancer Center. The center’s researchers believe that knowledge gained through the new studies will pave the way for human trials, FDA approval and routine clinical use.

Besides the Xenogen In Vivo Biophotonic Imaging system, which captures faint light emitted by harmless glowing molecules injected into the body, the center is adding a high-field 9.4-Tesla rodent MRI machine that will be one of the most powerful of its kind in the world, and a miniature CT machine that uses X-rays to probe structures with 0.05-millimeter resolution. It will be only the third such machine delivered to any institution in the world.

These join a PET scanner that makes images of metabolic activity within the body with 2-mm resolution, and digital image processing laboratories directed by Charles Meyer, professor of radiology, that can even make time-lapse movies of cancers growing and blood flowing within a tumor.

Part of the NIH grants also will be used to fund new staff and a seminar series to enable the exchange of new findings among scientists. The grants also will help businesses conduct drug evaluation studies using these noninvasive imaging approaches in conjunction with the U-M.

The U-M center is one of only five in the nation being established under the NIH’s new funding effort for molecular imaging. The U-M application for funding received the highest score.

At the U-M, a three-year, $1.2 million grant begins April 1, adding to a five-year, $2.9 million grant that began last August. The other centers are located at the University of Pennsylvania, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Harvard University and Stanford University.

The U-M center will also serve as a regional tumor imaging resource, attracting other scientists from the U-M as well as those from surrounding institutions such as the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit, the University of Wisconsin and the University of Minnesota, to work with U-M researchers.