NEWS | August 9, 2012

Ramsey Badawi awarded prestigious "Provocative Questions" grant from NCI


Ramsey Badawi, UC Davis associate professor of biomedical engineering, has won a groundbreaking grant from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to address whether tumors can be detected when they are two to three times smaller than those detectable using current imaging methods.

The three-year NCI grant, $574,000 in the first year, is part of the "Provocative Questions" project. This is a new and uniquely structured initiative that funds research tackling one of 24 questions, which, if answered, could lead to significant advances. The questions, which had before been asked but were later abandoned because of a lack of ways to address them, emerged from discussions among veteran cancer researchers and scientists in various fields.

Badawi's project, "Enabling Technologies for Ultra-High Sensitivity PET Scanners" was chosen from among more than 700 grant applications submitted to the NCI. Only 57 grants, totaling $22 million, were awarded.

Ramsey Badawi © UC Regents
Ramsey Badawi

Badawi, who holds an endowed chair in molecular imaging in the Department of Radiology,   has been working for many years to enhance the capabilities of existing imaging technologies such as positron emission tomography (PET). In his UC Davis Medical Center laboratory in Sacramento,  for example, he has collaborated with other UC Davis scientists to build a specialized combined PET/CT scanner, which can detect small breast tumors and be used to evaluate the effectiveness of chemotherapy.

Badawi's laboratory already has simulated a highly sensitive, giant (2-meter long) PET scanner using software; the NCI grant will allow the team to develop the technologies to support building the actual device. Badawi's lab will collaborate with the Simon Cherry and Jinyi Qi labs in the UC Davis Department of Biomedical Engineering, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of Pennsylvania to accomplish the tasks required.

"We need the fancy detectors, fast reconstruction techniques to deal with data and fast and high-capacity electronics," he said. "The grant will allow us to have all of this technology in place so that we can then build the final system." The Badawi lab is planning to adapt algorithms similar to those used by Google and Facebook for fast Internet searches to create medical images from data acquired by the giant scanner.

Unlike other types of imaging, PET can accurately measure physiological functions such as blood flow, oxygen use and glucose metabolism. It can determine how well organs are functioning, help monitor the efficacy of drugs and distinguish benign from malignant tumors.

Still, PET is limited in that current commercial scanners can only reliably detect cancers that are larger than about one cubic centimeter in size. A major increase in detection sensitivity would provide a radical change in how imaging could be used in clinical practice, according to the NCI.

In addition to aiding in the detection and treatment of cancer, Badawi said the technology could be transformative for understanding many diseases and could be used in a variety of clinical applications.

"This scanner will be 50 times more sensitive than the one we have now," said Badawi of his design. "That would mean, for example, we could do really fast scans of children, possibly obviating the need for certain levels of anesthesia."

Since the scanner will be able to record a 3D high-definition "movie" of how drugs track through the entire body, Badawi also envisions use of the device to determine whether a new drug agent reaches its target, how long it stays in the blood stream or affects a certain organ,  bone marrow or the vascular system, for example.

"Hopefully, this is allow us to rule out drugs that otherwise would have had to go through expensive clinical trials," he said.  "And it will allow us to identify drugs that are more likely to be successful."

A further benefit of the device would be reducing radiation exposure. "With this device, radiation exposure could be reduced to levels where multiple studies of healthy volunteers could be performed with minimal risk," said Badawi. "This could open up a wide range of basic science studies that are impossible to conceive of today. It could change the entire field".

Badawi's project is supported by grant number 1R01 CA170874-01 from the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health.

UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center
UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center is the only National Cancer Institute-designated center serving the Central Valley and inland Northern California, a region of more than 6 million people. Its specialists provide compassionate, comprehensive care for more than 9,000 adults and children every year, and access to more than 150 clinical trials at any given time. Its innovative research program engages more than 280 scientists at UC Davis, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Jackson Laboratory (JAX West), whose scientific partnerships advance discovery of new tools to diagnose and treat cancer. Through the Cancer Care Network, UC Davis collaborates with a number of hospitals and clinical centers throughout the Central Valley and Northern California regions to offer the latest cancer care. Its community-based outreach and education programs address disparities in cancer outcomes across diverse populations. For more information, visit