UC Davis Researchers Get $15.5M To Build New Generation Of Whole-Body Scanner

A research team at University of California Davis has received a five-year, $15.5 million grant to build an imaging device that combines two technologies to scan the whole body at once while reducing time and radiation exposure.

The scanner could drop the radiation dose by a factor of 40 or decrease scanning time from 20 minutes to 30 seconds. Or do a combination that drops both the dose and the time by lesser amounts.

If successful, the machine could change the way cancers are tracked and treated — and put UC Davis on the leading edge of molecular imaging nationwide, university officials say. The technology has implications for diagnostics, treatment and drug development because doctors could diagnose a disease and follow its trajectory in a way not possible today.

Awarded by the National Institutes of Health, the grant will be administered by the National Cancer Institute. The project will be led by UC Davis biomedical engineering professor Simon Cherry and radiology professor Ramsey Badawi.

The device would use two technologies: positron emission tomography and computerized axial tomography — known, respectively, as PET and CAT or CT scans.

PET scans are widely used to diagnose and track a variety of diseases, including cancer, because they show how organs and tissues are functioning in the body. But they show only one piece of the body at a time because they are performed in 20-centimeter segments. By CAT scans mostly show anatomy, like bones. The new scanner under development at UC Davis combines the technology and does the whole body at once.

“It’s like the difference between the Hubble and a ground-based telescope,” Cherry said. The new scanner will see the whole body at once and won’t lose the signal at the end of the scan area. And the stronger signal could help spot smaller cancer cells.

Another obvious use is in drug development, Cherry said.

“What researchers need to know is does the drug reach its intended target — and where else does it go?” he said. ”We’ll be able to see where the drug is in all the tissues at the same time.”

The research team hopes to have a prototype in two years, do a year of testing, and — within three years — start scanning patients under research protocols to gather the first human data, Cherry said.

“Our hope is after five years, there will be some commercial outlet to get these total body scans,” Cherry said. “It depends on how well we demonstrate the unique value of the technology and our ability to attract a good industry partner.”

Cherry had no estimate of the potential cost of one of these scans. It’s too early to estimate manufacturing costs or other factors such as how faster scans increase hospital through-put — and possibly decrease costs, he said.

Radiologists outside UC Davis say they do whole body imaging now using PET and CAT scans separately. The images are then combined electronically.

“This is like going from a slower jet to a faster jet,” said Dr. Jonathan Breslau, imaging chief at Sutter Medical Group. “It’s not a trivial thing … and it will allow them to image things we can’t currently see.”

The proposed scanner “may be able to decrease the dose and/or the scanning time — those are the main things,” said Dr. Steve Falen, medical director at Northern California PET Imaging Center in Sacramento. “But in most cases, patients will still need to be injected with a radioactive tracer and wait an appropriate time before imaging — that won’t change.”

However, when it comes to drug development, the new machine may be useful to watch whole-body distribution of a radioactive labeled drug at specific intervals over time, Falen added. “That’s something we cannot do now.”

Source: Sacramento Business Journal, Kathy Robertson

Photo: Ramsey Badawi, director of Nuclear Medicine Research at UC Davis

Kathy Robertson covers health care, law and lobbying, labor, workplace issues and immigration for the Sacramento Business Journal.