NIH Awards U.Va. Scientist Stuart S. Berr $2 Million Grant to Expand Imaging Research

July 14, 2008 — A multidisciplinary team of researchers led by University of Virginia biomedical engineer Stuart S. Berr, a professor of radiology, has received a $2 million grant from the National Center for Research Resources at the National Institutes of Health for the purchase of a cyclotron to expand imaging research.

A cyclotron is used to create radioactive elements, which are essential to the field of molecular imaging, a new branch of science that strives to visualize, characterize and measure biological processes at the molecular and cellular levels in humans and animals by noninvasive means. The radioactive agents accumulate at specific sites in the body and emit a signal that can be imaged.

"We are very excited and grateful to receive this grant. Because of the extremely short lifespan of many radioactive elements, we have been limited in our research endeavors because of the need to transport our agents from distant cyclotrons," says Berr, who is the co-director of the U.Va. Molecular Imaging Center along with Mark B. Williams.

The most sensitive way to detect the location and amount of imaging agent is by using positron emission tomography, which requires that the targeted agent be labeled with a positron-emitting radioactive element made in the cyclotron. Some of these elements, such as [15O]-oxygen and [11C]-carbon, decay very rapidly (two and 20 minutes, respectively). Therefore, it is imperative that the cyclotron be adjacent to the imaging equipment, according to Berr.

The targeted imaging agents will be used for clinical and basic research studies geared toward determining the molecular mechanisms underlying ischemic heart disease, cancer, diabetes, lung inflammation, Alzheimer's disease and drug addiction.

As an example, Dr. Steven DeKosky, a neurologist and incoming dean of the U.Va. School of Medicine, led a team of scientists at the University of Pittsburgh that has recently shown that the radiotracer "Pittsburgh Compound-B," which is labeled with 11C, can be used to measure amyloid-β plaque burden in brains of people with Alzheimer's disease. Using Pittsburgh Compound-B and positron emission tomography should greatly help in the diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease and in research geared toward either curing or minimizing the effects of this disease.

U.Va.'s new cyclotron will be located adjacent to the Snyder Translational Research Building at the Fontaine Research Park.

"Innovative biomedical research requires frequent access to the newest and most advanced technology," said Dr. Barbara Alving, director of the National Center for Research Resources. "High-performance equipment provides NIH-funded researchers with new discovery tools, enabling a new generation of data and a new dimension of information. Tools such as these play key roles in the study of disease and the fundamental mechanisms of biological function, ultimately leading to new advances and treatments for diseases."

Berr's grant was one of 20 "High-End Instrumentation grants," totaling $33.3 million, announced by the National Center for Research Resources to fund the latest generation of advanced research equipment. Awarded to research institutions nationwide, these one-time grants, which support the purchase of sophisticated research equipment costing more than $750,000, offer extraordinary potential to impact a wide variety of biomedical research in many disease areas.

This is the second such grant that Berr has earned. His previous $2 million award in 2005 was for the purchase of a new-generation small-animal magnetic resonance imager, the first of its kind in the United States.

This is the third such award for U.Va., the other being $2 million awarded in 2006 to John Bushweller of the Department of Molecular Physiology and Biological Physics for an 800-megahertz nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer for high-end structural studies.
— By David Foreman