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Weili Lin, PhD, Vice Chair of Basic Research

The fundamental research division has made great strides in advancing various research projects, as well as securing extramural funding in the past year.  Specifically, the total extramural funds, both federal and non-federal, awarded to our faculty increased from $4,964K+ to $12,060K+ between FY 16 and FY 17, respectively.  Below are highlights of the accomplishments of our MAJOR research teams in fundamental research (basic science).

Baby Connectome Project

The UNC/UMN Baby Connectome Project (BCP) is an NIH-funded project (Contact PI: W. Lin / Co-PI: D. Shen), with investigators from both the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Minnesota.  The BCP focuses on collecting high-quality MR images with concurrent behavioral and cognitive assessments from 500 typically developing children 0-5 years of age.  The BCP is one of the three NIH-funded Lifespan Connectome Projects and the only one that focuses on children 0-5 years of age in the States.  High-quality anatomical and functional MR images have been collected which enable detailed characterization of brain structural and functional maturation processes during the first five years of life.

Imaging Analysis Team

The Image Display, Enhancement, and Analysis (IDEA) laboratory, directed by Dr. Dinggang Shen, serves research groups within and beyond UNC by developing and disseminating cutting-edge computational tools for imaging studies associated with development, aging, and diseases, encompassing diverse imaging modalities such as MRI, PET, and CT and spanning multiple anatomies of the human body.

IDEA has played a leading role in empowering brain researchers with computational tools for understanding human brain development in the first years of life. In particular, IDEA makes it possible to quantify and track cortical gyrification in healthy infants and has helped discover spatially heterogeneous cortical differences in early brain development. IDEA’s contribution in this area was highlighted in the 2015-2020 Strategic Plan of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). IDEA is charged with the task of developing the processing and analysis pipeline in the internationally high-profile Baby Connectome Project (BCP).

IDEA is also awarded a prestigious Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) grant to investigate how Alzheimer’s disease is associated with changes in higher-order dynamics of brain function. This has led to new previously unknown brain functional networks. The computational tools resulting from this project have found applications beyond Alzheimer’s disease. They extend to patients with brain tumors, Parkinson’s disease, and autism spectrum disorder.

In addition to Shen, faculty members of the IDEA team include Drs. Pew-Thian Yap, Gang Li, Li Wang, and Han Zhang. The team has been consistently and highly funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Shen was ranked 4th nationwide among radiology faculty in terms of NIH funding in 2016.

Radiochemistry Team

The radiochemistry team, directed by Dr. Zibo Li, has been focusing on the development of novel PET agents for visualization and quantification of various molecular targets related to neuro, cardiac, diabetes, arthritis, and cancer research. Over 10 cutting-edge PET agents have been made available to UNC investigators in preclinical research since 2014. The first cGMP PET agent for clinical research was established in 2016. There are 6 more clinical grade PET agents currently available to UNC investigators ranging from cancer immunotherapy to neuroimaging. The radiochemistry team is also active in developing highly innovative PET agents. The funded studies include: 1) developing highly efficient 18F labeling method for protein labeling (targets of interest include Her2, EGFR, and PD-L1 etc) and establishing antibody based pre-targeting method (NIH); 2) developing novel agents for prostate cancer prognosis (ACS); and 3) establishing x-ray induced photodynamic therapy (NIH).  Finally, the development of IDO-targeted PET for immunotherapy monitoring has received a highly favorable score and should be funded by NIH in the next few months.

Our team also plays a key role in CCNE and Cancer Center grants at UNC. Ongoing collaborations within the program include investigators at UNC, Duke, U Del, TAMU, U Mass, and UGA. Overall, the radiochemistry program not only provides critical support to the basic and clinical research at UNC. It also helps our investigators build strong collaborations nationally and internationally.

Epidemiology Research Team

The Epidemiology Research Team, directed by Dr. Louise Henderson, is actively working on multiple funded projects in breast cancer and lung cancer. Our NIH/NCI-funded Program Project Grant  (P01) seeks to advance a new risk-based paradigm that tailors imaging strategies based on women’s cumulative risk of imaging outcomes, including detection of early-stage invasive cancer, missed or advanced-stage cancer, and false alarms, rather than on overall breast cancer risk. In the first year of this renewal P01, we have collected patient, radiologist and outcomes data from approximately 100,000 breast imaging examinations. Through our PCORI pragmatic trial study, we have surveyed over 500 women to understand how the outcomes of various breast-imaging modalities differ by breast density. Both of these funded projects have the potential to provide information supporting screening decision-making for women, providers, policymakers and healthcare delivery systems.

For our lung cancer screening R01, we have recruited 4 sites across the state that are collaborating as part of our NC Lung Screening Registry and will continue to seek additional collaborators. We presented preliminary data from this lung screening work at the American Thoracic Society Meeting, which demonstrated that patients undergoing lung cancer screening have a much higher baseline lung cancer risk score than patients screened in the National Lung Screening Trial. Our findings confirm that it will be essential to evaluate how the benefits and harms differ in a real world setting.

Imaging Acquisition Team

The imaging acquisition team continues to focus on developing novel imaging acquisition approaches, aiming to improve our ability for depicting in vivo pathophysiological processes.  Specifically, a novel imaging approach, MR Fingerprinting (MRF), has been implemented and is ready for clinical evaluation.  MRF is a new and novel imaging approach developed by investigators from Case Western Reserve University.  Our team has further improved this approach capable of providing new insights into early brain development.   A high temporal and spatial resolution functional MR approach has been developed.  Promising results uncovering hippocampal sub-field functional MRI has been reported using this approach, underscoring the potential efficacy of this approach for AD related studies.