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February 1, 2011

Stuart S. Berr, PhD, awarded $2 million grant from the NIH for the cyclotron to expand imaging research

A multidisciplinary team of researchers, led by University of Virginia Professor of Radiology and Biomedical Engineer Stuart S. Berr, Ph.D., has received a $2 million grant from the National Center for Research Resources (NCRR) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for the purchase of a cyclotron to expand imaging research at UVA.

A cyclotron is used to create radioactive elements which are essential to the field of molecular imaging, a new branch of science which 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 a specific site 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 life span 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 UVA Molecular Imaging Center along with Mark B. Williams, PhD.

The most sensitive way to detect the location and amount of imaging agent is by using positron emission tomography (PET), which requires that the targeted agent be labeled with a positron emitting radioactive element made in the cyclotron. Some of these PET elements, such as [ 15 O]-oxygen and [ 11 C]-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 towards determining the molecular mechanisms underlying ischemic heart disease, cancer, diabetes, lung inflammation, Alzheimer’s disease and drug addiction. As an example, Steven DeKosky, M.D., a Neurologist and incoming Dean of the UVA School of Medicine, lead a team of scientists at the University of Pittsburgh that has recently shown that the PET radiotracer Pittsburgh Compound-B (PiB), which is labeled with 11 C, can be used to measure amyloid-β plaque burden in brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease. PiB-PET should greatly help in the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease and in research geared towards either curing or minimizing the effects of this disease.

UVA’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 NCRR Director Barbara Alving, M.D. “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 part of $33.3 million in grants for 20 High-End Instrumentation (HEI) grants to fund the latest generation of advanced research equipment announced by the NCRR. 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 Berr’s second HEI grant. His previous $2M award in 2005 was for the purchase of a new-generation small animal MRI, which was the first of its kind in the USA. This is the third HEI award for UVA; the other being $2M awarded in 2006 to John Bushweller, Ph.D. (Department of Molecular Physiology and Biological Physics) for a 800 MHz NMR spectrometer for high-end structural studies.

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