A new molecular imaging center that will develop innovative ways to see gene-based therapies at work in the human body was launched today (Jan. 17) at UCLA's Jonsson Cancer Center. The $9.8-million UCLA
Center for In Vivo Imaging in Cancer Biology is the first such molecular imaging center on the West Coast, Jonsson Cancer Center researchers said.
The imaging center, funded through a five-year grant from the National Cancer Institute (NCI), also will further studies on the biological mechanisms of cancer.
Research at the imaging center may shed new light on the safety and effectiveness of gene therapy and other gene-based treatments. Investigations also may provide important clues about how cancer develops, grows, spreads, forms its own blood supply for nourishment and interacts with the human immune system.
UCLA's Jonsson Cancer Center is one of only three such centers nationwide to receive funding from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to develop a state-of-the-art imaging center for basic cancer research.
"With an outstanding group of investigators from various disciplines and the significant advances they have made in biological imaging using positron emission tomography (PET) technology, the research team at UCLA's Jonsson Cancer Center has a strong foundation to expand its first-rate program to specifically address problems in cancer," said Dr. John M. Hoffman, chief of the molecular imaging in the NCI's Biomedical Imaging Program.
Dr. Judith Gasson, director of the Jonsson Cancer Center, said discoveries in the imaging center hold tremendous potential for cancer research and care.
"In the long run, we expect that the discoveries we make at UCLA's new imaging center will hasten development of safe, effective treatments for patients by allowing researchers to more rapidly and thoroughly evaluate the benefits and limitations of certain experimental therapies," Gasson said.
Dr. Harvey Herschman, principal investigator for the UCLA Center for In Vivo Imaging in Cancer Biology and director of basic research at the Jonsson Cancer Center, said the grant comes at a critical time. UCLA researchers, he said, are poised to expand upon early studies and tackle a wide range of problems in cancers such as leukemia, prostate and breast cancers.
"Imaging and understanding cancer at its molecular and cellular levels will play key roles in improving diagnosis, treatment and prevention. Being able to non-invasively see what is going on in the body will give us the information necessary to overcome hurdles such as not being able to predict a tumor's behavior or not knowing how a tumor will respond to certain treatments, " said Herschman, a professor of biochemistry and pharmacology. Herschman also holds the Ralph and Marjorie Crump chair in molecular imaging at the UCLA School of Medicine.
A major obstacle in cancer research lies in a physician's inability to know whether gene therapy and other gene-based treatments reach targeted cells and work as they should, Herschman said.
"To address this challenge, my colleagues and I successfully merged modern techniques of molecular biology and molecular imaging to create two tracking systems that evaluate how effectively genetic treatments work in patients," Herschman said.
In the 1990s, Herschman and his colleagues developed two first-of-a-kind tracking systems to image gene therapies non-invasively. The systems use specially engineered genes called "reporter" genes, which have been successfully tested in laboratory models. The tracking systems will be tested in cancer patients for the first time this year, Herschman said.
The reporter genes are attached to the therapeutic genes and can be made to glow "hot" during a PET scan. By using the PET scanner to pinpoint the location of the genes, researchers will be able to monitor the gene
therapy's behavior soon after it has been administered to a patient. Doing so will allow them to quickly determine whether the therapy attacks cancer cells or travels elsewhere in the body, potentially subjecting the patient to serious side effects.
Herschman said the new imaging center will help UCLA researchers expand on these early systems and pursue additional projects that will further cancer research around the world.
"Our goal for the center is to collaborate with researchers worldwide who will apply these advances to a wide range of problems in oncology," Herschman said. "We expect that the new technologies emerging from this center will add important tools to the toolboxes of cancer researchers, allowing them to investigate questions in ways not previously feasible."
Biological imaging centers at Harvard in Cambridge, Mass., and Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York also will be supported by NCI grants.