Chemist Thomas Meade, with his multidisciplinary research group of chemists, biologists, engineers and clinicians, is a good example of the type of researcher who will have lab space in the new Richard and Barbara Silverman Hall for Molecular Therapeutics & Diagnostics.
Meade's title alone illustrates his breadth: He is the Eileen M. Foell Professor in Cancer Research and professor of chemistry, biochemistry, molecular biology and cell biology, neurobiology and physiology and radiology. His research focuses on coordination chemistry and its application to bioinorganic problems that include biological molecular imaging, electron transfer processes and the development of electronic biosensors for the detection of DNA and proteins. His work in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and the Feinberg School of Medicine is leading to new and more sensitive methods for the early detection of diseases.
Meade is overseeing Silverman Hall's state-of-the-art biological imaging center that will occupy approximately 10,000 square feet of the ground floor. The goal is to provide the capability to image from cells (submicron) to whole animals in one location. The sophisticated instrumentation in Silverman Hall, worth approximately $15 million, will include several modalities including high-resolution magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), optical imaging, micro-positron emission tomography (PET) and micro-computer tomography (CT), enabling researchers to image brain function, gene expression, cell migration and much more.
Meade, who came to Northwestern in late 2002 from the California Institute of Technology, is the founder of four biotechnology companies and holds more then 50 issued patents with 40 pending.
Q: What is imaging?
Imaging is well known to just about everybody. Ever since you were young you've had images taken, whether they be of your teeth or a broken bone, and many are familiar with ultrasound. Like medical technicians, experimental researchers can capture images of what they are studying -- cell migration, anatomical details, an area of brain activity or detection of a tumor. Different modes of imaging -- MRI, PET, optical microscopy -- use different energy levels to probe a specimen.
Q: What role does imaging play in your research?
I'm interested in imaging things remotely and noninvasively. My work particularly applies to creating probes to understand developmental biology and the cancer arena, both for early diagnosis and to characterize what has been detected. We need more powerful probes that are more specific, that ultimately may have a significant impact on health care costs.
We ask a variety of basic science questions about molecular and cell biology and how biological molecular imaging can have an impact. For example, what is the relationship between gene expression and development? Can diagnostics be made so powerful as to also qualify as therapeutics?
Q: What are you working on now?
Dyes currently used with MRI are what are called “dumb dyes.” They are always “on” and report on anatomy -- if a dye is shown to travel somewhere in the body that it shouldn't, that indicates a problem. Examples include angiography to examine coronary arteries and contrast agents to detect lesions. Useful, but we can do better.
We have pioneered what we call “smart dyes” for in vivo imaging -- custom-designed molecules that may detect cancer cells about to go metastatic. They report on physiology and turn “on” only when bioactivated. The dye looks for a single biochemical signature, such as the presence of a particular enzyme associated with the abnormal cells. The dye lights up only when the enzyme is detected, and this molecular event is imaged in three dimensions by MRI.
We can create different dyes for different applications. Eventually we want to develop “smart dyes” that include a therapeutic component. An appropriate drug would be attached to a contrast agent; detection of the abnormal cells would light up the dye and simultaneously trigger drug delivery.
Q: What else have you invented for imaging?
Fate-mapping agents. These are the new “dumb dyes” -- contrast agents used to label cells so we can track them in whole animals over time. For example, at the Feinberg School I'm working with Jack Kessler to track stem cells and with Dixon Kaufman to track the fate of islet cells after transplantation. I've collaborated with a number of physicians at Feinberg, which is particularly exciting for me. I have never been so challenged in so many ways as I have been at Northwestern.
Q: Why are you excited about this new shared facility?
The imaging center will focus on experimental research using biological molecular imaging as a tool. We will be able to image at the highest resolutions possible with our types of instruments. There are only about a half dozen comprehensive imaging centers in North America like the one we will have in Silverman Hall. And what's next to the center is just as important as what's in it. The center will be surrounded by the chemists, biologists and engineers who make up the Chemistry of Life Processes Institute. Researchers from these disciplines won't hear about what's going on -- they'll actually see what's going on. This line-of-sight proximity, where everyone works shoulder to shoulder, is crucial to future discovery. It will allow us to solve problems at the margins -- those that exist between disciplines.
We even plan to have plasma screens in the building's lobby so visitors can see what is being imaged at that very moment in the room next door. We want to involve everyone -- from undergraduates to senior postdoctoral fellows and faculty as well as the general Northwestern and Evanston communities. By introducing surprise and discovery, we want people to wonder, “What is that?”
Q: What will the new imaging center allow you to do that you can't do now?
Imaging equipment currently is scattered in multiple locations. We will be bringing all the biological molecular imaging under one roof, on one floor. For example, often I have to send a contrast agent or compound to an imaging facility out of state. In Silverman Hall we will be able to do this more quickly in-house and therefore “close the loop.” The chemist who synthesized a compound and the biologist testing it will be able to discuss progress over a cappuccino.
The imaging center is designed to be a two-way conduit between basic science and the clinic. The clinicians will be right at our hip. In addition to Evanston campus researchers, clinicians and physician-scientists from Feinberg and Evanston Northwestern Healthcare will be able to come to one place for collaborations. The translational component is crucial -- it is our goal to have the basic science research translate as seamlessly as possible to the clinic. At present, there is no translational facility like this in the Chicago area.