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Imaging Lab Draws from Impressive Arsenal to Fight Major Health Threats

By Robin Hindery

The powerful MRI scanner at UCSF's Surbeck Lab characterizes and differentiates the brain tumors of 18 patients. Credit: Inas Khayal

Surrounded by cutting-edge equipment most people couldn’t even turn on, much less operate, researchers at a UCSF imaging laboratory are using innovative techniques to study and improve the treatment of life-altering medical conditions, from cancer to multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s disease. The Margaret Hart Surbeck Laboratory of Advanced Imaging, located within the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences (QB3) building on UCSF’s Mission Bay campus, is home to some of the world’s most powerful and fastest noninvasive imaging tools. It is also a sort of intellectual hub where roughly 100 researchers and staff conduct studies and develop new technologies aimed at advancing biomedical research, said lab director Sarah Nelson, PhD. The Surbeck Lab umbrella covers six major faculty labs, four collaborative research programs and several core facilities, but it also regularly brings in researchers, postdoctoral scholars and graduate students from more than a dozen departments across UCSF. “It’s an extremely collaborative environment,” said Nelson, a professor in the Department of Radiology and Biomedical Imaging and co-chair of the newly created Department of Bioengineering and Therapeutic Sciences. “Our overall focus is to develop new imaging techniques and apply basic engineering to biology- and disease-oriented research. Everything we do is aimed at translational medicine.” The field of advanced diagnostic imaging is progressing rapidly, and UCSF is at the forefront of that evolution, thanks in part to the Surbeck Lab’s impressive arsenal of equipment. Two of the most powerful imaging tools at the lab are the 3-tesla (3T) and 7-tesla (7T) MRI scanners. The 3T scanner generates a magnetic field twice as strong as the previous industry standard for high-field imaging – the 1.5T scanner – and 10 to 15 times the strength of low-field or open MRI scanners. Weighing in at 36 tons and surrounded by 400 metric tons of steel, UCSF’s $7 million 7T scanner dwarfs even the 3T in its capabilities. One of about 20 in the world, it is currently approved for research but not for clinical use, Nelson said. “Imaging is really changing. Instead of merely detecting disease, today’s imaging techniques can characterize and quantify how abnormal an individual’s condition is,” said Daniel Vigneron, PhD, associate director of the Surbeck Lab and a professor in the Department of Radiology and Biomedical Imaging. Much of Vigneron’s own recent work in the lab has focused on prostate cancer, a disease that affects approximately one in six men in the United States, according to the National Cancer Institute. However, only a small percentage of those who are diagnosed with prostate cancer will develop metastatic disease, in which the cancer spreads to other parts of the body, Vigneron said. “Overtreatment is a big problem in prostate cancer,” he said. “What we’ve been looking into at the lab is a way to image the aggressiveness of the cancer early on to see if a patient has a cancer that is going to progress.”

Members of UCSF's Surbeck Lab, from left, Kathryn Hammond, Adam Elkhaled, Trey Jalbert, Niles Bruce, Angela Jakary, Daniel Vigneron, Wei Bian, and Beck Olson, stand alongside the lab's powerful, 36-ton 7T MRI scanner. Photo: Susan Merrell

This summer, funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health, Vigneron, Nelson and their colleagues plan to launch the first-ever phase I clinical trial to assess the metabolism and potential aggressiveness of prostate cancer, using the 3T scanner’s hyperpolarized MRI capabilities. The Food and Drug Administration has already approved the use of 1.5T scanners to characterize prostate cancer, but new methods – such as the use of the 3T machine – have the potential to take radiological assessments to a whole new level, Vigneron said.

Supporting Future Surbeck Stars

In addition to the many efforts already in progress, the Surbeck Lab’s more seasoned researchers are eager to promote the work of the next generation of innovators. Since 2007, the Surbeck Scholar competition has awarded $2,000 each to a select group of lab-affiliated postdoctoral scholars and graduate students to be used for career development.

This year’s winners – are Gabrielle Blumenkrantz, a fourth-year graduate student in the UCSF-UC Berkeley Joint Graduate Group in Bioengineering, first place; Peder Larson, a postdoctoral scholar, second place; and Ilwoo Park, a fourth-year graduate student in the Joint Graduate Group in Bioengineering, third place.

Blumenkrantz’s research focuses on development of MRI techniques for the early detection of osteoarthritis and degenerative disc disease. Larson is attempting to develop novel radiofrequency MR pulses and sequences for use in preclinical prostate cancer studies. Park is working to develop MR biomarkers for evaluating prognosis and response to therapy in brain tumor patients.

The Surbeck Scholars will present their research on Friday, May 1, at 10:30 a.m. in Genentech Hall auditorium at the Mission Bay campus. The event is open to all UCSF faculty, staff and students and will be followed by a luncheon in the Genentech Hall atrium at noon. RSVP for the luncheon to [email protected].

Though use of UCSF’s 7T scanner remains more limited than that of its 3T counterpart, it is hardly sitting idle. One ongoing study focusing on musculoskeletal imaging is using the machine to help quantify bone and cartilage structure, which is important in the treatment of osteoporosis and osteoarthritis. Other 7T research studies are working to improve the characterization of neurological and vascular diseases. In the future, the Surbeck Lab’s imaging techniques could be used not only to measure the severity of diseases and other health threats, but also to gauge the efficacy of treatments, Nelson said. “Our machines can provide a picture that tells us about the mechanism of a certain therapy – is it working the way it’s supposed to?” she said. Construction of the Surbeck Lab was funded by a gift of more than $5 million by the late Margaret Hart Surbeck. Surbeck’s will established INDNJC Inc. to finance health-related research reflecting her lifelong interest in electromagnetic radiation. After conducting a nationwide search in 2002, the corporation’s board selected UCSF as the recipient of the funds. The Surbeck gift also endowed the Margaret Hart Surbeck Distinguished Professorship in Advanced Imaging – a professorship currently held by Nelson – as well as the Surbeck Collection, which will archive and display in the University library system material from the lab’s research.

Related Links:

Margaret Hart Surbeck Laboratory of Advanced Imaging
UCSF Department of Radiology and Biomedical Imaging

California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences (QB3) at UCSF

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UCSF Department of Bioengineering and Therapeutic Sciences