Innovative imaging center awarded $7.1 million

The Molecular Imaging Center at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis has received a five-year, $7.1 million grant to develop innovative ways to study cancer and other disorders by monitoring the activity of cells and proteins inside the body.

The grant, from the National Cancer Institute, funds a new cycle of research at the center.

“We’re honored by the vote of confidence the National Cancer Institute has given to the Molecular Imaging Center,” says the center’s director, David Piwnica-Worms, MD, PhD, professor of radiology and of cell biology and physiology. “This is our third renewal of funding from the institute, and that speaks very well of the progress our researchers have already made.”

Many of the imaging techniques developed at the center let scientists tag interesting cells and proteins with labels that allow tracking of their movement and activity in the body. Studying these factors in the body instead of a test tube provides more complete and accurate information about the complex roles they play in sickness and in health, according to Piwnica-Worms.

For example, the center supports an effort by Piwnica-Worms and John F. Dipersio, MD, PhD, the Virginia E. and Sam J. Golman Professor of Medicine, to prevent graft-versus-host disease, a potentially deadly complication of bone marrow transplants for leukemia and other cancers. The condition occurs when the donor’s immune cells attack the recipient’s body.

To understand how it develops, Washington University scientists have devised a way to tag key immune cells in the donor’s bone marrow and monitor where those immune cells go after transplantation. Patterns in the way the cells are distributed may help scientists predict when graft-versus-host disease is likely to be a problem and develop ways to stop it. A treatment for the disorder, developed through the center, is currently in clinical trials.

Other research projects at the center are:

• Raphael Kopan, PhD, the Alan A. and Edith L. Wolf Professor, studies how a protein called Notch contributes to cancer. He hopes to identify potential pharmaceutical treatments that prevent Notch from helping cancers grow.

• Helen Piwnica-Worms, PhD, the Gerty T. Cori Professor, is exploring the connections among stress, cancer and a gene that regulates cells’ life cycles.

• Lee Ratner, MD, PhD, professor of medicine, studies the links between immune system inflammation and cancer. The center has made it possible for Ratner to alter a cancer-causing gene so that cells light up when the gene becomes active. This allows him to identify and study tumors in their earliest stages.

In addition to the primary research projects, the center will fund four to six pilot projects per year and several core facilities that assist researchers.

In 2011, the center became part of the Bridging Research with Imaging, Genomics and High-Throughput Technologies (BRIGHT) Institute. BRIGHT is part of BioMed 21, a School of Medicine effort to facilitate multi-disciplinary collaborations and speed the development of laboratory insights into improved treatments.

“BRIGHT is helping a larger group of scientists put the Molecular Imaging Center’s innovative techniques to use in advancing their research,” Piwnica-Worms says. “We have a range of new tools and approaches that can help assess and analyze the many changes that underlie the development of cancer. We have ways of accelerating these studies to help scientists develop new treatments much more quickly.”

The Molecular Imaging Center also funds educational activities, including seminars and fellowships.

The research is funded by grant P50 CA094056 from the National Cancer Institute.

Washington University School of Medicine’s 2,100 employed and volunteer faculty physicians also are the medical staff of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals. The School of Medicine is one of the leading medical research, teaching and patient care institutions in the nation, currently ranked sixth in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Through its affiliations with Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals, the School of Medicine is linked to BJC HealthCare.