Moonshot Grant Will Help Researchers See Two of Cancer’s Key Food Sources at Once

Imagine trying to take a picture of a runner, but only being able to see her feet. If you could see her whole body, you’d get the full picture of how she uses both legs to put one foot in front of the other to reach top speed. That’s the idea behind a cancer imaging project in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, and the researchers just received $1.4 million in funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as part of the Cancer Moonshot to help the effort along. Researchers at Penn are building a positron emission tomography (PET) scanner that can image a patient’s entire body at once, and can also look at two of cancer’s food sources at the same time – glucose and glutamine. This grant will help those researchers interpret the data they get from those scans.

“Currently, we can see glucose and glutamine individually, but not on the same scan, which also means we don’t know much about how they interact with each other,” said the project’s co-principal investigator David A Mankoff, MD, PhD, the Gerd Muehllehner Professor of Radiology at Penn and co-director of the Cancer Imaging Core of Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center. “The scanner we’re building will give us that information, and this grant will be instrumental in helping us apply what we find.”

Glucose is a simple sugar found in the blood, and cancer cells feed off it and use it for energy the same way all other cells do. Some cancer cells are more reliant on glutamine – an amino acid also found in the blood – to be their primary food source. During PET scans, patients are injected with radioactive compounds called tracers that let doctors see certain compounds through the body – in this case glucose or glutamine. If tissues are found to be absorbing high amounts of either one, it can indicate the presence of cancer. Current PET devices can only scan one part of a patient’s body at a time. Penn’s new device – known as PennPET Explorer – will be able to scan the whole body at once. The increased size and performance of the new scanner will also give doctors the ability to see glucose and glutamine at the same time, which ordinarily would require two scans on two separate days.

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