"We're a little bit like jazz musicians," says MSU researcher Erik Shapiro. "We are wandering in scientific space centered around one or two themes, generally involved in molecular imaging. Our themes are regenerative medicine and cancer detection. MSU has given this space to become scientific jazz musicians and we're very appreciative. We hope to make some clinical contributions within the next few years."
Russ White: Erik Shapiro is the Associate Chair of Research and an Associate Professor in the Department of Radiology and he's the Division Chief for the Section of Biomedical Imaging in the IQ. That's MSU's Institute for Quantitative Health Science and Engineering. Erik, welcome to the program.
Erik Shapiro: Thanks for having me.
White: Can you start by telling us a little bit about your research? What do you do?
Shapiro: My research is generally centered around the topic of molecular imaging. Molecular imaging is the specific detection, identification, and measurement of cells and molecules in living organisms. To do that, we develop a variety of imaging tools, nanoparticles, imaging contrast agents which are chemicals that elicit specific imaging signatures, new imaging technologies and innovative ways of delivering those agents to specifically detect pathologies and biologies that we're interested in.
White: Can you explain what regenerative medicine is?
Shapiro: Regenerative medicine is the restoration, let's say, of structure and function to biological systems that have been damaged, say, by disease or injury. Actually, our research is principally involved in imaging regenerative medicine. Imaging the delivery of therapeutic stem cells. In fact, we have a project where we're imaging and trying to measure the delivery of liver cells to the liver and diseased liver because simply there aren't enough complete livers for liver transplant. So there's an idea that maybe we could deliver liver cells to cure the liver disease. We want to image those.
We have another project where we're imaging biomaterials that are necessary for regenerating nerves that have been severed either in the periphery or, I think most significantly, in the spinal cord. Imaging those biomaterials, imaging those cells, imaging that regenerative medicine is really important because, generally, regenerative medicine occurs in areas that are very difficult to biopsy. One cannot biopsy the heart. One cannot biopsy a five day old liver. One cannot sit and cut pieces of the spinal cord out to see whether they've regenerated or not. So non-invasive imaging of those processes is critical both in the research and development of these new technologies but, we hope, in the clinical implementation of them.
White: And, Erik, I understand there's a new imaging lab at the IQ. What does some of this new equipment allow you to do?
Shapiro: What we have built I compare to a new car showroom. It's a gorgeous space with brand new, shiny instruments. They're still shiny. They're relatively new. This new imaging lab currently contains small animal x-ray systems and magnetic particle imaging systems and fluorescence imaging systems. It will soon have, in essence, a one of a kind in the world instrument to simultaneously perform MRI and nuclear medicine, a real game changing kind of machine. These instruments in general allow investigators in the IQ but also throughout the university to interrogate biological systems in vivo, in live animals, with more than adequate expert technical assistance in imaging and animal physiology to really study a biological system in situ. And I think that that's really unique.
White: Tell me more about how this equipment is unique to MSU and more about what's game changing about it.
Shapiro: The PET MRI system that we're getting, that's positron emission tomography combined with magnetic resonance imaging. This is only the second of its kind in the world. Although maybe by the time it's delivered, it'll be the third or fourth but, you know, these are details. Right? This instrument will allow us to make the best use of an individual research model both in terms of metabolism and structure and function. Nuclear medicine is really exquisite in its sensitivity. MRI is really exquisite in its soft tissue contrast. So combining these two modalities together will change the way we understand physiology, metabolism and, in my cases, cell therapies. We have a magnetic particle imaging system which I would say that, honestly, this is the first of its kind in the world to be delivered to a research university. I don't know that anybody's quite sure what this machine will do. This is one of those imaging technologies that the community will decide what the utility of this is.
In my laboratory, we're actually designing the nanomaterials that allow one to perform magnetic particle imaging because, as the name implies, we're imaging magnetic particles. It's a little bit like the wild west out there with who's magnetic particle is good or bad or, in the end, going to win the day. So these technologies will really put MSU, and already have put MSU, at the forefront of institutions that perform advanced molecular imaging.
White: And, Erik, tell me a little bit more about the goals of your research and how you'll measure its success. What benefit does it bring to society?
Shapiro: I think for a long time I've been doing molecular imaging I think maybe for 20 years since my graduate work. We've focused a lot on rodent models of disease. And I think that one of the specific goals of my research is to migrate those experiments which we generally would do in rodents to large animal models of disease. MSU is a gold mine for this. It's literally a gold mine for performing this type of translational research.
For example, in my previous institution, to perform an experiment in pigs, which is an excellent translational research model for all kinds of disease, cardiac, liver, even the brain and the lungs, was an enormity because I was going to perform these in the middle of a city at a campus that didn't have a vet school or really large animal housing. And here at MSU, anything south of Service Road, this is the ag school. This is where we have pig farms. We have a vet school, we have animal science, we have agriculture.
One of my specific goals is to make good use of these pig models. So we've developed pig models of cancer. In fact, we've developed the first pig model of human ovarian cancer. And now we're working towards pig models of diabetes. So my near term goal for this is to migrate to pig models on the way to clinical implementation of some of these.
White: And when might we realize the benefit? How mature is your research?
Shapiro: Some aspects of the research are very mature. If I can plug it, we've just formed a company called Shape Scientific to begin the commercialization process of the magnetic nanoparticles that are necessary for using MRI to track stem cell therapies. If all goes well, and we can be a bit optimistic about this because that's what business people seem to do. I would say that we are realizing the clinical success of these magnetic particles hopefully within five years.
White: Erik, I mentioned you're part of Chris Contag's team at the IQ. How does that environment that Chris is developing support your research to contribute to your success?
Shapiro: This has been almost the greatest gift that MSU has given me. I guess I preceded Chris by a few years and I hope to think that, perhaps, I played even a small role in Chris's willingness to come to MSU and start this program. Since then, and Chris's arrival, and the building of this IQ building, not just the building itself but the institute, it's actually been a fun ride. So many of my friends, I mean real friends in the field, have moved to MSU. This is just a gift that my friends and colleagues are here with me. They work upstairs. I'm able to go upstairs and ask my friends molecular biology questions, which I really know very little about. I'm able to go upstairs all the way to the third and fourth floor and talk to real experts in diabetes research and nuclear medicine. It has allowed me to broaden the types of research questions that I ordinarily would have asked. I think we're going to accelerate many parts of the research in ways that I really hoped but didn't expect would happen so soon.
White: And you started to answer it, Erik, but how does your work benefit from the interface of engineering and medicine?
Shapiro: My training, my PhD and all my education, is in chemistry. And I think I was trained in classical disciplines of chemistry, biology, and physics. And engineering is an entirely different way of looking at the world. Chemistry, biology, and physics are learning about the world, I would say, at different size scales. Engineering really is about harnessing that information to build something, really to design and to build and to test something. Now this mixture of engineering and medicine and I would say chemistry, biology, and physics sort of supports my ventures and my laboratory's ventures to harness chemistry but to harness it with a design principle. With goals of manufacturing. It really causes us to look at the problem from a completely orthogonal direction and, I think, to make use of this information. Engineering really forces you to make use of the information that you acquire. I really like having this sort of interplay between engineering and medicine.
White: As you think about your students, Erik, how do you train the next generation of scientist to work at this interface of converging fields?
Shapiro: My philosophy is to have an incredibly diverse laboratory so they can train each other. The laboratory right now has an organic chemist, has a molecular imaging specialist, has computer scientists, has animal technologists, and a number of undergraduates who are exploring various aspects of nanomaterials. The laboratory in the past has had experts in biomaterials and cancer and neuroscience. And even all the way back to my days at Yale where we had experts in immunology and stem cell biology. In having this diverse group of individuals allows me to run the experiment with the students themselves where one person can ask another, "Hey, I've got this image. Is there quantitative information you can help me get out of it?" or, "I'd like to make a nanoparticle with these types of design features. Hey, chemists, can you help me put this functionality in there?"
I think it's beautiful. It allows me to really step back and allow this process to happen quite organically. I very much support the students in their ability to travel to conferences and give presentations. I think it's a big part of what they will do as academics themselves. They need to get that training before they're released into the world. I encourage my students to write grants and to write papers and to explore new topics. I always tell them that the best thing that can happen is that I give them a project and they take it in a completely different direction and it's productive. That's just about the best thing that can happen to an investigator like myself because it shows tremendous maturity in a student and it will really prepare them for an independent career on their own or a support career for a long term job.
White: Erik, just summarize for us again your research and what you'd like us to know about it.
Shapiro: We're a little bit like jazz musicians. We are wandering in scientific space centered around one or two themes, generally involved in molecular imaging. Our themes are regenerative medicine and cancer detection. MSU has given this space to become scientific jazz musicians and we're very appreciative. We hope to make some clinical contributions within the next few years.
White: Well, Erik, thank you for telling us about your research and all the best moving forward.
Shapiro: Thank you very much.
White: That's Erik Shapiro. He's the Associate Chair of Research and an Associate Professor in the Department of Radiology and he's the Division Chief for the Section of Biomedical Imaging in the IQ. The IQ is MSU's Institute for Quantitative Health Science and Engineering. More online at iq.msu.edu.
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