Investment in imaging to accelerate UNC researchers' understanding of disease

September 11, 2008 — Cancer, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, stroke – biomedical researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill will be able to make strides in understanding and treating all of these diseases and more because of a $260 million investment to enhance the University’s imaging capabilities.

Investment in imaging to accelerate UNC researchers' understanding of disease click to enlarge Architectural rendering of the Imaging Research Center

A new facility with the latest radiographic equipment will help UNC researchers better understand the exact events inside the body that lead to disease, and to track how new treatments work.

Initial site preparation is under way for the seven-story, 343,000-square-foot Imaging Research Center, which will house the Biomedical Research Imaging Center (BRIC), research labs and a consortium and facility designed to support and advance the rapidly developing science of biomedical imaging.

“Imaging is a tool that can be used to accelerate discovery of new drugs and new treatments for cancer and virtually every other disease you can think of,” said School of Medicine vice dean for academic affairs and BRIC director, Dr. Etta Pisano. “Construction of this building is really a concerted effort by the entire university to improve our imaging capabilities.” Pisano is also Kenan Professor of Radiology and Biomedical Engineering and a member of UNC’s Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Among the advanced equipment the new facility will add are a 7 Tesla MR (magnetic resonance) scanner, and a cyclotron that will enable UNC investigators to create short-life radioisotopes on site for the first time.

The 7 Tesla scanner, which will be one of the first few available in the world, will provide much higher resolution than the 1.5 or 3 Tesla scanners currently used in clinical studies, said Weili Lin, Ph.D., professor of radiology, neurology and biomedical engineering, associate director of the BRIC, and a Lineberger member.

Lin compares the difference between the 3 Tesla scanner and the 7 Tesla scanner to the difference between analog and digital TV.

“The 7T scanner will give us the ability to see more details and subtleties and the subtle changes that result from disease progression,” Lin said. Uses include examining subtleties of different layers within the brain’s cortex or tracing a tiny amount of a substance as it binds to a cellular receptor molecule.

The cyclotron will allow researchers to make greater use of an imaging technique called positron emission tomography, or PET, a key tool in understanding the molecular events behind disease. Because the radioisotopes used as tracers in PET studies decay so quickly, they must be implanted in subjects immediately, which has been impossible without a cyclotron on site.

The technique can be used to study the mechanisms at work in Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, cerebrovascular disease, ischemic stroke and others diseases. “We’re trying to understand the molecular events behind all those diseases, and PET and a cyclotron are essential tools for doing that,” Lin said.

UNC will be one of the first five sites in the world to have another new generation imaging tool: an MR-PET scanner. The scanner can provide more complete information and save imaging time because it can collect anatomical information (via MR) and physiological information (via PET) at the same time.

The new building will also advance BRIC’s goal to become a central resource for researchers across North Carolina to make the acquisition, processing, analysis, storage and retrieval of images more standardized and systematic.

That capability could help researchers such as Dr. Elizabeth Bullitt, professor of neurosurgery in the School of Medicine, who develops methods to derive clinical benefit from what scientists know about changes and differences in blood vessels.

Bullitt examines brain blood vessels by using 3-dimensional brain scans. “We look at vessel number, vessel radius, and very importantly, vessel tortuosity – how wiggly vessels are. It looks like vessels become more wiggly in the presence of cancer, and this may be a way of helping to detect cancer. It may also be a way to assess whether a cancer is responding early to treatment,” Bullitt said.

Right now, the brain scans that Bullitt analyzes are acquired at many different hospitals, and her lab spends time ensuring that the scans are acquired at the correct size and resolution. But if BRIC could offer a standardized way of acquiring, processing and storing those images, that would streamline research such as hers.

Funding for the project was provided by the North Carolina General Assembly. Last year, legislators appropriated $8 million to pay for design and planning. This year, they appropriated another $35 million, with additional funding of $172 million for the 2009-2010 fiscal year and $45 million for 2010-2011.

North Carolina legislators who played key roles in the effort to secure this funding included Sen. Marc Basnight, who is the Senate’s president pro tem, and Rep. Joe Hackney, speaker of the house.

Construction of the facility should be complete by the end of 2012, said Bob Marriott, associate dean for resource analysis, planning and management in the School of Medicine. Upon completion, the Imaging Research Center will be the School of Medicine’s largest building, Marriott said.

School of Medicine contact: Les Lang, (919) 966-9366,
News Services contact: Patric Lane, (919) 962-8596,