Preclinical Positron Emission Tomography Research Project

PET Research ProjectDr Steve Archibald, Director of the preclinical positron emission tomography (PET) research at the University of Hull and Professor Steve Haswell, Professor of Analytical Chemistry at the University of Hull, explain how the University of Hull and the Daisy Appeal work hand-in-hand to help better the future of diagnostics.

The aim of this project is to produce radioisotopes using a cyclotron which can be incorporated into targeting molecules and, using a PET/CT scanner, be used for early diagnosis of diseases such as cancer and dementia. 

The cyclotron and the research project were funded by the Daisy Appeal and Dr Assem Allam along with substantial backing from the University for staffing, facilities and infrastructure. The University of Hull is one of the very few sites to have a dedicated cyclotron for research, not needing to take time from research to produce routine molecules for clinical use.

There are a few different strands of research and one is to develop new radiopharmaceuticals and target different aspects of diseases. This will allow us to obtain more information about diagnosing the disease or informing how to treat the patient and how that treatment is progressing. In order to carry out a positron emission tomography (PET) scan, a radiolabelled tag must be incorporated into a drug molecule which is what Dr Archibald is currently working on. The radiopharmaceuticals are being produced in their entirety at the University of Hull, Dr. Archibald explains why.

“Because we have these very short lived isotopes that emit radiation you only have a small window in which to make them. Unlike your standard therapeutic drug which you would make in your major pharmaceutical company on a large scale…you have to make it by the patient, which creates a different set of challenges”.

Another aspect of the research at the University of Hull is microfluidics, a highly anticipated technology which has the potential to radically change a wide range of applications in the future. People use the term microfluidics but microfluidics is not just small chemistry, Professor Haswell explains:

“You can reconfigure the way we currently work, for example at present chemists do most of there reaction in solutions but microfluidic devices have a very high surface area which could be used. One can imagine a tube with a series of functionalised surfaces or zones down which reactants flow reacting in each zone selectively to produce a clean product at the other end. All that’s moved is a bit of solvent or liquid but the reaction has occurred because you’ve created unique spatially located reaction zones.”

What they aim to do at the University is miniaturise the synthesis of PET reagents so a dose on demand system can be put into place, meaning radiolabelled tracers for disease diagnosis  are made patient by patient.

Prof Haswell states, “For medics like Nick (Prof. Stafford) it will allow them to design tracer systems for different sorts of diseases which will be specific to the patients clinical needs. Currently, realising the potential for PET has received little attention in the UK this is an opportunity to readdress this situation”.

Professor Haswell and Dr. Archibald were brought together by the Daisy Appeal as their strengths and expertise were what was needed in order to make this new technology happen. Dr. Archibald can change the chemistry accordingly and develop targeting drugs but once developed it needs to be optimised so the reaction occurs faster, it also needs to be monitored which is where Prof. Haswell’s microfluidic knowledge contributes.

Prof. Haswell claimed, “When this project came up they needed to exploit the inherent characteristics of microfluidcs to develop a novel relatively simple rapid synthesis and product quality assurance of for low radioactive volumes”.

Professor Stafford brought the whole project together, Dr. Archibald states, “Prof. Stafford has the vision and it is quite rare to have somebody so engaged at the head of a charity”.

Professor Haswell states that it isn’t just about cancer research; it’s the ability to design imaging capability so we can look at things like drug metabolism, disease propagation, and other physiological and clinical diseases. The possibilities with this type of technology are endless. We still need to ensure we can produce the chemical functionality required and we have to be able to make it operate in a practical way for the practitioner. This is where a lot of other approaches have fallen down, not considering everything as a whole. You might design a great device, but it may not be practically or financially viable to be disposable (a key aspect for per patient dose synthesis). You need to take all these things into consideration from the beginning, which is the approach adopted by our team at the University.

The plan is to initially use the standard diagnostic drugs used by clinicians and optimise the reaction and quality control but they can also take the new technologies and the new radiopharmaceuticals and hopefully in the future transfer those through into clinical trials. This will allow new technologies and radiopharmaceuticals to be developed at the University which can then be tested in that clinical environment.

The link between pre-clinical research at the University and translation into the clinical setting is very important and a situation we are lucky to be in, Dr. Archibald says, “A lot of the new staff that have come in at Castle Hill are experts in PET scanning and radiopharmaceuticals for diagnosis of disease and that’s what we want to be able to facilitate”.

All this work is promising for the future of the Daisy Appeal, the future of diagnostics and the collaboration between the university and the charity.

“Nothing will change if we don’t take the risks”.