Bill Snyder, VUMC Reporter
December 2, 2020

The following originally appeared in the Dec. 2, 2020 edition of the VUMC Reporter.

Researchers in the Vanderbilt University Institute of Imaging Science (VUIIS) have received a $1 million grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) to develop “deep tissue” imaging methods that can peer into the furthest corners of the body.

Through the application of magnetic resonance microscopy, VUIIS Director John Gore, PhD, and colleagues Adam Anderson, PhD, Mark Does, PhD, and Junzhong Xu, PhD, aim to illuminate — at the cellular level — what’s previously been hidden from view because of the limitations of current technology.

“This is technology development — to make a higher quality of image with new information, pushing the limits of what’s been done before,” said Gore, the Hertha Ramsey Cress University Professor in the Departments of Radiology and Radiological Sciences, Biomedical Engineering, Molecular Physiology and Biophysics, and Physics and Astronomy at Vanderbilt.

The application of ultra-high magnetic fields, specialized hardware, novel diffusion imaging techniques and other innovative methods of acquiring and analyzing data one day could lead a clearer understanding, for example, of Alzheimer’s and liver disease, how tumors respond to immunotherapy and how the brain “learns,” he said.

The VUIIS grant is one of 13 projects in Deep Tissue Imaging funded in the latest round of grants announced today by the CZI. Bryan Millis, PhD, research assistant professor of Cell & Developmental Biology and Biomedical Engineering at Vanderbilt, received one of 22 Imaging Scientists awards.

All told, CZI announced $32 million in funding to support biomedical imaging researchers, technology development and a bioimaging network in North America.

“By collaborating closely with the imaging community and providing both funding and expertise in technology development, we hope to help make the next breakthroughs in imaging possible,” Stephani Otte, PhD, CZI’s Imaging Program Officer, said in a news release.

Recipients of Deep Tissue Imaging grants who achieve their goal by the conclusion of the initial 30-month-long award period in June 2023 will be eligible to apply for an additional four-year, $10-million technology development grant.

CZI was established by Priscilla Chan, MD, and her husband, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, in 2015 as a new kind of philanthropy to help solve some of the world’s toughest challenges in the areas of science, education, and justice and opportunity.

In 2018 Ethan Lippmann, PhD, assistant professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Vanderbilt, won a five-year, $2.5-million grant from CZI to study how disorders of the blood-brain barrier impacts neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

The VUIIS, a trans-institutional operation that involves close collaboration of the Schools of Medicine and Engineering, is uniquely positioned to tackle the challenge of deep tissue imaging.

The institute has a 15.2-tesla research magnet that can generate magnetic resonance images of tissues down to the cellular level. One tesla is roughly 20,000 times the strength of the magnetic field of the earth.

VUIIS is partnering with scientific instrument companies including Bruker Biospec, which is manufacturing the cryogenic coils that enable high-field MRI scanners to pick up the tiniest of signals from tissue.

Institute scientists have pioneered MRI and other bioimaging techniques in humans and small animals, including methods for detecting and quantifying damage to the spinal cord, monitoring the effect of cancer treatments at the cellular level, and studying neuroplasticity, how the brain recovers from injuries such as stroke.

Does, professor of Biomedical Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Radiology and Radiological Sciences and director of the Center for Small Animal Imaging, is developing MRI methods to study neural tissue, muscle, bones and tumors.

Anderson, professor of Biomedical Engineering and Radiology and Radiological Sciences, has been using a technique called diffusion MRI to study connectivity in the white matter in the brain to better understand dyslexia, reading difficulties, in children.

Xu, assistant professor of Radiology and Radiological Sciences and Physics and Astronomy in the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center, is using a technique called temporal diffusion spectroscopy MRI to map the size of liver cells in small animals.

The technique one day may help clinicians determine whether injected immune cells are invading and killing a liver tumor, for example.