Nuclear medicine's potential to combat cancer

Chin-Tu Chen, PhD, stands alongside the IBA Cyclone 18 cyclotron
Chin-Tu Chen, PhD, stands alongside the IBA Cyclone 18 cyclotron in a heavily shielded room at the UChicago Medicine Cyclotron Facility. (Photo by John Zich)

Nuclear medicine has been a powerful approach in cancer diagnosis and treatment for over 50 years. Just recently researchers and physicians have pushed the field forward with the development of new tools for precision medicine.

One might say that the field of modern nuclear medicine was born at the University of Chicago. In fact, the world’s first nuclear reactor was used to create the first controlled, self-sustaining nuclear reaction at University of Chicago in 1942, launching the nuclear era.

As a research institution and a hospital, there was always an immense interest in using this technology for the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. This led to the opening of the Argonne Cancer Research Hospital in 1954 on the UChicago campus. Argonne Cancer Research Hospital was the largest facility ever built for the purpose of cancer research and treatment using nuclear medicine.

An early team of UChicago researchers including Katherine Austin Lathrop, BS, MS, Paul Harper, MD, Robert Beck and Alex Gottschalk, MD, launched the field of modern nuclear medicine with the development of an imaging technique using a radiotracer, a radioactive molecule that binds to cancer in the body, which is the most commonly used medical radioisotope today, almost 60 years later.

This imaging technology could help clinical teams determine whether a cancer is aggressive and inform treatment decisions.

For progress to continue, the University installed a giant machine called a cyclotron in 1968. The cyclotron is used to create radioactive particles, or isotopes, which are used to produce radiopharmaceuticals. Having direct access to a cyclotron allowed for steady progress in the field of nuclear medicine for decades.

In recent years, Chin-Tu Chen, PhD, associate professor of radiology, led efforts for the installation of a new facility in 2017. This new installation contains a massive, state-of-the-art IBA Cyclone 18/9 cyclotron and can be used to produce new types of radiopharmaceuticals, including advanced radiotracers for precision medicine.

Radiotracers are radioactive chemical compounds that are used as pharmaceuticals to image specific tissues or cells in the body. This imaging process is performed using sensitive equipment that can detect signals from the compounds.

The modern cyclotron facility opened the doors to the development of new radiotracers for tracking and treating cancer at the molecular level. A recent publication by Raymond Moellering, PhD, associate professor of chemistry, and Chen, describes a new class of radiotracer that can label specific molecular activity in a tumor.

It allows the researchers to see an active enzyme that can be present in aggressive triple-negative breast cancer and in other cancers. Moellering, Chen and their teams demonstrated that this new type of radiotracer can find and label aggressive cancer cells in whole-body imaging in an animal model.

“This imaging technology could help clinical teams determine whether a cancer is aggressive and inform treatment decisions,” Moellering said. “This enzyme is elevated in many different types of aggressive cancer, so if it works to track aggressive breast cancer, it may have utility in tracking many other types of aggressive cancer.”

Extraordinary achievements in the use of nuclear medicine to diagnose and treat cancer is a part of the history of UChicago. With the recently installed modern cyclotron, a new era of discovery and research has been initiated for UChicago Medicine Comprehensive Cancer Center clinicians and investigators. Novel radiotracers have the potential to evolve the field toward precision medicine, improving results and quality-of-life for cancer patients.