The USC PET Imaging Science Center and the Department of Radiology have been awarded a $1.2 million planning grant by the National Cancer Institute to develop a cellular and molecular imaging center for cancer. The center will be a major collaborative effort among physicians, scientists and engineers from USC/Norris, the Department of Radiology, the USC School of Engineering, Childrens Hospital Los Angeles and Caltech.
“This will be a center without walls,” explained Peter Conti, director of the PET Imaging Center. “It will be a forum for users and providers of imaging techniques to exchange information. With this NCI grant, we’re going to be able to show how discoveries made in the laboratory can improve imaging and how imaging can improve discoveries made in the lab.”
As an example, Conti cited a pilot study already underway in conjunction with Parkash Gill, professor of medicine and a USC/Norris Cancer Center researcher. Gill has been studying novel proteins involved in the process of angiogenesis-the formation of blood vessels, by which tumors are able to establish a blood supply.
“What we’ve been doing,” said Conti, “is radiolabeling some of these proteins and trying to identify their binding sites. In one project we’re working on, we believe we’ve found a brand-new receptor that plays a role in the process of angiogenesis. This shows that these sorts of experiments may have not only clinical implications, but also lead to advances in basic science.”
The co-principal investigator with Conti on the USC/Norris In-Vivo Cellular and Molecular Cancer Imaging Center-as it is to be called-is Richard Leahy, a professor in the School of Engineering’s Signal and Image Processing Institute (SIPI).
“He’s done a lot of work in image reconstruction,” said Conti. “We’re combining to tap each other’s expertise.”
The University Park scientists will provide computer support, data analysis and mathematical modeling in addition to image reconstruction.
Collaborating with Caltech is particularly exciting, said Conti, because researchers there have been working to develop new MRI contrast agents.
These so-called “smart” agents are biologically activated and may well play a key role in cancer diagnosis and management in the future, he said.
“For example, if a certain enzyme is present or elevated in a certain disease process, one can capitalize on that by developing a contrast agent that becomes imagable after administration only when acted upon by that enzyme. In this scenario, one could use such an agent to improve diagnostic specificity or assessment of therapy,” he added.
While the center will focus on molecular imaging for cancer research, the project will undoubtedly be of use to other areas of medicine as well, said Conti. “The idea is to eventually expand this approach to other disciplines, including neurology, cardiology and infectious disease,” he added. “After all, the tools and methods developed in cancer research may in fact be very similar to those needed to address issues in any number of other fields.”
The NCI grant is a three-year planning grant; the investigators will spend that time funding small pilot projects, developing an organizational structure-and applying for a much-larger center grant. USC is among fewer than 20 sites nationwide to be awarded this sort of planning grant, and Conti believes that is due to the Cancer Center’s strengths in translational research.
“That’s a big advantage compared to other centers,” he said. “There are places that are more basic-science oriented and less clinical, and places that are more clinical and less basic-science oriented. We’ve got strengths on both sides-we’re very good at moving things from benchtop to practice. And that’s what’s going to make a center like this work.”