University partnership sees development of world-first technology

15 June 2017

The University of Sydney and UC Davis have partnered to develop a world-first imaging system to better understand the underlying mechanisms of mental illness and metabolic diseases.

Artist's impression of the EXPLORER imaging machine

Researchers at the University of Sydney, ANSTO and University of California, Davis, have joined forces to develop and use new imaging technology for investigating the causes and potential treatments for mental illness and diabetes.

Positron emission tomography (PET) is a commonly used technology for imaging organs and tissues and works by detecting the signals produced by radiopharmaceuticals that are administered to the subject. The Sydney researchers have extensive experience in quantitative PET methods and are working with UC Davis to develop new applications for a total-body scanner called EXPLORER.

UC Davis recently obtained a US$15.5 million grant to develop EXPLORER, the world’s first total-body PET scanner. The scanner will have never-before-seen sensitivity, enabling all tissues and organs within the body to be imaged simultaneously at very low levels of radiation.

Professor Steven Meikle from the University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Centre and Faculty of Health Sciences is the lead researcher for the University and says the development of the technology could lead to a much more comprehensive understanding of disease.

“A conventional PET scan loses 98 percent of the radiation response from the body whereas Explorer could achieve an 80 to 90 percent coverage rate allowing greater imaging sensitivity.

“Explorer will work the same as current PET scans, with the patient being injected with a radiopharmaceutical. The imaging machine however, will be about two metres long and will be able to scan the patient’s entire body from head to foot in real time,” says Professor Meikle.

The low doses of radiation means the technology can be used on a wider group of patients including children and those with the initial signs of a disease, as well as long term studies involving multiple scans throughout the different stages of disease.

Professor Meikle says the technology will allow for better scanning and imaging of how the brain interacts with the body.

“Our current imaging techniques can’t study the torso and brain at the same time meaning we can’t get a comprehensive understanding of a disease’s impact on the whole body. Metabolic diseases such as diabetes affect the entire body and EXPLORER will allow us to better understand how the body’s metabolic processes are affected by the disease.

“Similarly, neurological conditions such as dementia, Alzheimer’s and various mental illnesses impact not just the brain but the patient’s entire body so this technology will hopefully provide a better understanding of how communication between the brain and the rest of the body is altered in these diseases,” he says.

Professor Simon Cherry from the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Department of Radiology at UC Davis says the technology will give researchers the chance to evaluate new treatments and the way different organs work together.

“The technology will give us the ability for the first time to watch compounds distribute in all the tissues and organs of the body simultaneously. This will be invaluable for looking for example at new drugs, as well as interactions between different organ systems.

“We will also be able to do clinical scans in a fraction of the time – 30 seconds versus 20 minutes – or at a fraction of the radiation dose without compromising image quality,” says Professor Cherry.

The partnership aims to use the resources of the University of Sydney’s multidisciplinary initiatives at the Brain and Mind Centre and Charles Perkins Centre, in collaboration with ANSTO and the expertise in PET technology development at UC Davis with the long term goal of developing a human EXPLORER imaging program in Sydney.

Elliott Richardson

Assistant Media Advisor (Medicine, Dentistry, Nursing and Pharmacy)

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