$10-million grant for leading-edge imaging center at UCLA is renewed

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Kim Irwin
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A five-year, $10-million grant supporting a leading-edge molecular imaging center at UCLA has been renewed by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) for a third cycle, bringing the total support for the center to $30 million.
The grant funds the UCLA Center for In Vivo Imaging in Cancer Biology, one of the NCI’s eight specialized In Vivo Cellular and Molecular Imaging Centers (ICMICs). UCLA’s ICMIC brings together the expertise and experience of innovative scientists from UCLA's Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center, the Molecular and Medical Pharmacology Department, the Crump Institute for Molecular Imaging and the Institute for Molecular Medicine.
The UCLA ICMIC has developed and applied both instruments and technologies that allow researchers to repeatedly, non-invasively and quantitatively observe such functions as immune responses — in real time — as the body detects and then attempts to ward off cancer. The center has allowed oncologists to more quickly determine whether alternative therapies are working and has developed imaging techniques to stratify cancer patients for initial therapies.
“Understanding cancer at its molecular and cellular levels, and being able to image these aberrant processes in living individuals plays a key role in improving the diagnosis, monitoring and treatment of cancer. In addition, monitoring the distribution and fate of therapeutic molecules provides an enormous advantage in manipulating and evaluating their efficacy," said Harvey Herschman, principal investigator of the UCLA ICMIC. “The new technologies that are emerging from our center are providing valuable new tools for cancer researchers, allowing them to investigate questions in ways not previously feasible.”
The first UCLA ICMIC grant, awarded in 2001, allowed scientists to extend the development and use of non-invasive molecular imaging technologies, such as positron emission tomography (PET), which was pioneered at UCLA. Those efforts resulted in making these new technologies part of the regular “toolbox” used by molecular and cell biologists at UCLA who were studying cancer in animal models.
The second ICMIC grant, awarded in 2005, allowed the scientific advances made in the first five years to be translated into the clinic to improve the diagnosis and determination of the stage of cancer.
Projects funded by the ICMIC grant have included optimizing PET imaging technologies to rapidly monitor metabolic responses of brain and lung tumors to experimental therapies. Metabolic measures of response are detectable much earlier than the structural changes in tumors usually measured in current clinical procedures, so doctors can tell more quickly if a drug is working and patients can be spared treatments with toxic side effects.
Another project translated from the lab to the clinic involved the use of traceable reporter genes to mark modified immune cells used to stimulate the body’s own response to melanomas. Using imaging, researchers are able trace injected immune cells carrying the reporter genes and determine their location, their ability to target tumor tissue, their longevity in patients and their biological activity.
Herschman said this round of funding will allow UCLA researchers to develop new imaging instrumentation, technology and potential therapeutic and imaging agents, to test these advances in preclinical models, and to initiate clinical trials in cancer patients.
“In the first five years, we accomplished what we set out to do. Dozens of research labs at UCLA are using non-invasive, repeated and quantitative imaging technologies for cancers,” said Herschman, director of basic research at the Jonsson Cancer Center and a professor in both the biological chemistry and pharmacology departments of the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. “For the second five years, we worked to translate into the clinic these new technologies and discoveries. We were able to improve the diagnosis and staging of cancer. We now can much more rapidly distinguish those patients who might respond to certain therapies from those who would not. We hope the next five years bring even greater discoveries that will help improve diagnosis and treatment of cancer.”
Research at the UCLA molecular imaging center already has shed new light on the safety and effectiveness of gene therapy and other gene-based treatments. Investigators also are studying how cancer develops, grows, spreads, forms its own blood supply for nourishment and interacts with the human immune system, Herschman said.
“Being able to non-invasively see what is going on in the body gives us the vital 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,” Herschman said.
UCLA received one of the first ICMIC awards ever given, along with Harvard University and Memorial Sloan-Kettering in New York. UCLA is the first institution to be awarded a third five-year “cycle” for an ICMIC grant, Herschman said, receiving a third $10-million funding commitment.
Judith C. Gasson, director of the Jonsson Cancer Center, said discoveries made in UCLA’s ICMIC hold tremendous potential for cancer research and patient care.
"These discoveries will hasten development of safe, effective treatments for patients by allowing researchers to more rapidly and thoroughly evaluate the benefits and limitations of experimental therapies," Gasson said.
 The ICMIC is an example of how Jonsson Cancer Center researchers leverage philanthropic support. The initial impetus for this promising work came through a $300,000 interdisciplinary grant to Herschman funded by donors to the Jonsson Cancer Center Foundation.
UCLA's Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center has more than 240 researchers and clinicians engaged in disease research, prevention, detection, control, treatment and education. One of the nation's largest comprehensive cancer centers, the Jonsson center is dedicated to promoting research and translating basic science into leading-edge clinical studies. In July 2010, the Jonsson Cancer Center was named among the top 10 cancer centers nationwide by U.S. News & World Report, a ranking it has held for 10 of the last 11 years. For more information on the Jonsson Cancer Center, visit our website at http://www.cancer.ucla.edu.
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Media Contact:
Kim Irwin
(310) 794-2262
[email protected]