NCI grants $7M to Midwest molecular imaging center
The National Cancer Institute (NCI) has granted a five-year, $7.1 million grant to the Molecular Imaging Center at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis to develop ways to study cancer and other disorders by monitoring the activity of cells and proteins inside the body.

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, according to the researchers. 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 the center's director David Piwnica-Worms, MD, PhD, professor of cell biology and physiology, developmental biology and radiology.

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 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 its development, Washington University scientists said they 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.