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Stanford Report, December 3, 2003

Lucas Center digs deep to meet research goals


For the past few months, construction activity has been clustered at the corner of Welch Road and Pasteur Drive, but unlike other campus projects, the object under construction is not immediately apparent – this project is occurring underground.

The Lucas Center expansion project is a 20,000-square-foot, two-story addition to the Department of Radiology’s Lucas Center. Scheduled for completion in late 2004, the new space will house equipment that will bring the department to the forefront of imaging technology while creating an inviting space for learning and retaining an open pedestrian area on ground level.

A construction crew hugs the outer walls of what will be a massive subterranean addition to the Lucas Center. The new facility will focus on molecular imaging and will also be home to an unsually strong MRI magnet. Photo: Mitzi Baker

The new space is the embodiment of the School of Medicine’s dedication to the future of radiology by focusing on molecular imaging. Molecular imaging allows the non-invasive measurement of what is going on inside the cells of a living body, explained radiology professor Sam Gambhir, MD, PhD, director of the Molecular Imaging Program at Stanford.

Conventional diagnostic imaging makes anatomy visible, showing the aftermath of a disease. Molecular imaging, on the other hand, can illuminate biological processes at the level of what genes and proteins are doing, identifying abnormalities that lead to the disease in the first place. That information can pinpoint earlier, more specific diagnoses and better disease management by direct monitoring of therapies.

"These techniques are letting us see things that we could otherwise not see, letting us follow things that make the body transparent, not in terms of structure but in terms of function," said Gambhir.

"Molecular imaging is the most major transformation of the last 20 or 30 years in radiology," said Gary Glazer, MD, the Emma Pfeiffer Merner Professor in the Medical Sciences and chair of the department. He said the basis of radiology has always been the melding of clinical medicine with physics and engineering that has produced the traditional imaging tools such as magnetic resonance imaging and ultrasound.

"Now we can move to the next level – gene expression – which will add to the cauldron the best of molecular biology and chemistry. The prospects are enormous for diagnostics and therapeutics. Imagine the potential to see when genes are turned on and off," Glazer said.

"We send in the molecular detectives to find the problem and send back a detectable signal," said Gambhir. The detectives are chemicals similar to drugs, he explained, which are combined with radioactive molecules that can be detected with current imaging tools, such as positron-emission tomography. He said current research is looking at which molecules could be targeted to image a number of processes, including the development of heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.

In addition to the brainpower and experience supplied by Gambhir and his team of 35 scientists, establishing a world-leading center for molecular imaging comes from having top-notch equipment to produce the radioactive atoms needed to create "molecular detectives."

A powerful cyclotron, a device used to make these low-energy radioactive isotopes, will be housed in the Lucas expansion, as well as the chemistry labs where researchers link the radioactive isotopes to molecules for specific detection duties.

Pneumatic tubes will shuttle the newly made agents to either Clark Center for research or to the hospital for imaging. In addition, Gambhir said, strong links to many basic science and clinical departments will help make the molecular imaging probes and technologies available for a wide variety of research and clinical applications throughout the campus.

The Lucas expansion will also house a new 7 Tesla magnet, which will be more than twice as strong as the current strongest magnet at Stanford. The 7T whole-body magnet will allow dramatic improvements in image resolution and new contrast mechanisms to be explored for a more detailed visualization of what is going on in the brain and body, said Glazer, such as being able to map brain function at the level of neuronal processing.

"The jump to a 3T opened new doors into the biological basis of brain wiring and at 7T, we’re confident we’ll see a similar jump in capabilities," he said. The new magnet could even be combined with molecular imaging in the future, allowing probes injected into patients to be detected with the magnet.

Although the equipment plays a starring role in the new space, a major goal of the department, Glazer added, was on creating an open, inviting learning environment to encourage collaborations among the researchers. One of the design challenges, said Chris Shay, construction project planner, was to create an underground facility that contained as much natural light as possible to make it a pleasurable place to work. "Light is at a premium here," he said, so the design incorporates open space leading to the outdoors by the learning center and offices, giving all the public spaces natural light.

The architecture firm MBT teamed with contractors Rudolph & Sletten to design and construct a building that reflects the latest in research and high-tech interiors while – despite the five-foot thick walls needed for isotope shielding and the subterranean location – striving for a transparence and luminosity.

In this way, said Shay, the building will tie in nicely with the recently opened Clark Center, already the site of many of the molecular imaging experiments.

Lucas Center celebrates first decade of imaging research (5/29/02)

The Lucas Center