Bioengineering Professor Changqing Li was recently awarded a four-year, $2.5 million R01 grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to help develop a focused X-ray luminescence tomography (FXLT) scanner that could accelerate cancer research.
The scanner is a first-of-its kind molecular imaging tool that will allow researchers to visualize how disease progresses and monitor the effectiveness of novel drug-delivery systems in live animals — without invasive surgeries or euthanizing the animals.
Though molecular imaging technologies that let scientists perform non-invasive micro-scale imaging already exist — including micro–computed tomography (micro-CT) and micro-positron emission tomography (micro-PET) scanners — the FXLT improves upon existing technologies in profound ways, Li said.
For example, many scientists are interested in using nanoparticles to encapsulate and deliver drugs directly to diseased tissue. However, existing technologies aren’t powerful enough to visualize what the drug-delivering nanoparticles are doing inside the body.
Micro-CT scanners fail because they can only visualize the tiny nanoparticles when they’re highly concentrated in the tissue of interest. On the other hand, micro-PET scanners don’t work because they can’t visualize objects at a tiny scale, even though they’re good at detecting particles at low concentrations.
The FXLT, however, will allow scientists to visualize the administered nanoparticles inside small animals at a superfine scale and in low concentrations.
“We wanted to build an imaging tool that has good spatial resolution and high molecular sensitivity,” Li said. “The new scanner fills that gap.”
The FXLT scanner has the potential to advance research into diseases such as cancer. Many scientists study the progression of cancer and the effectiveness of cancer treatments by testing drugs on lab mice carrying the disease. However, this often involves performing invasive surgeries or euthanizing the mice to remove and study diseased tissue. The FXLT will allow scientists to study the disease and potential treatments in a new way, allowing for faster and more humane disease research and drug discovery.
The FXLT is the first of a handful of powerful imaging tools that Li is working to bring to campus. He wants to expand the campus’s imaging arsenal, bringing a complete molecular imaging center to UC Merced.
“Almost all major universities have a molecular imaging center,” Li said. “This grant will bring UC Merced closer to having one of its own.”