UCSF MRI Technology Center Gets $5 Million NIH Grant to Develop Powerful New Imaging System

By Rob Waters

The University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) has been awarded $5.5 million by the National Institutes of Health to advance new magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology that may offer doctors the chance to rapidly create scans of tumors and other diseased tissue that are far more detailed than any method now being used.

Daniel B. Vigneron, PhDDaniel B. Vigneron, PhD

The technology, originally invented by GE Healthcare scientists, has been further developed in a partnership between GE and UCSF at a new center the university created at its Mission Bay campus. The center, approved for NIH funding in August, makes use of new instruments and GE’s most advanced MRI scanners. It encompasses more researchers and laboratory space than any such program in the world, said Dan Vigneron, the UCSF professor of radiology who directs it.

The approach was tested for the first time in a small pilot study completed this year aimed at gauging the aggressiveness of tumors in men with untreated prostate cancer. The technique may help doctors differentiate between the rare, fast-growing tumors that may pose a real threat and the majority of slow-moving cancers unlikely to cause real harm.

The key is a new instrument that can boost the MRI’s signal more than 50,000 times. For cancer studies, it makes use of a principle discovered in the 1930s by the German scientist Otto Warburg, who noted that cancer cells rapidly metabolize glucose to produce lactic acid.

Researchers inject a form of glucose called pyruvate into the bloodstream of a cancer patient lying inside an MRI. Using the ramped-up MRI signal, the team can watch in real time and measure how quickly the pyruvate gets metabolized by tumor cells.

“For the first time, using this technique, we can visualize enzyme activity in a specific pathway,” Vigneron said. “This tells us in what region enzyme activity has been increased and by how much. This correlates not only to cancer presence but to aggressiveness.’’

Changes in enzyme activity can be seen in seconds, producing meaningful data within a minute, Vigneron said. The technique can also be used to assess whether a tumor is responding to therapy, he said.

The grant will support research efforts led by Vigneron and two colleagues, John Kurhanewicz, the lead investigator in the prostate cancer study, and Sarah Nelson, director of the Surbeck Laboratory of Advanced Imaging, where the new center is housed. All are members of the Department of Radiology & Biomedical Imaging and UCSF’s California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences (QB3).

As part of the grant, the UCSF researchers will train scientists from other institutions in the techniques they develop. Other UCSF scientists will also investigate ways of applying these insights to other cancers, liver disease and diabetes.

About QB3 and UCSF

QB3 is a cooperative effort among private industry and more than 200 scientists at UCSF, UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz. One of four California technology institutes, QB3 harnesses the quantitative sciences of information technology, imaging and engineering to integrate and enhance scientific understanding of biological systems, enabling scientists to tackle problems that have been previously unapproachable. Please visit www.qb3.org.

UCSF is a leading university dedicated to promoting health worldwide through advanced biomedical research, graduate-level education in the life sciences and health professions, and excellence in patient care. For more information on UCSF, visit www.ucsf.edu. For specific information on UCSF imaging, visit: www.radiology.ucsf.edu/research.