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Emory researchers to develop tools for visualizing brain effects of Alzheimer’s disease and autism spectrum disorder
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Brian Katzowitz
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Researcher standing in new laboratory

Steven Liang stands in the new, state-of-the-art radiochemistry lab where his team will develop and test brain imaging radiotracers.

Emory researchers are on the cusp of seeing in real time how brain diseases like Alzheimer’s and autism spectrum disorder affect a patient’s brain function. That window into the brain in turn will let them develop more effective medications to treat the more than 10 million people in the U.S. living with these still-baffling conditions.

Two grants from the National Institute on Aging and the National Institute of Mental Health will fund development of novel positron emission tomography (PET) imaging probes for Alzheimer’s disease and autism spectrum disorder designed to show real-time brain activity that occurs during disease progression.

The awards will provide a total of $9.6 million over five years to support multidisciplinary teams collaborating through the new Positron Emission Tomography Imaging Center and the Radiopharmaceutical Discovery Program, both located in the Department of Radiology and Imaging Sciences of the Emory University School of Medicine. Collaborating departments include pharmacology and chemical biology, neurology and psychiatry.

“We are truly honored to receive this federal support to advance our understanding of Alzheimer’s disease and autism spectrum disorder by using next-level PET imaging technologies,” says principal investigator Steven Liang, PhD, an associate professor in the Department of Radiology and Imaging Sciences. “By collaborating with stellar Emory faculty members in translational brain research, we can more effectively and quickly advance clinical investigation and drug discovery to help the millions of people who are living with Alzheimer’s disease as well as other forms of dementia.”

Aiming to bring up target-specific information in living subjects that reveals disease stage and progression, the imaging probes project is a multidisciplinary collaboration with co-investigators Stephen F. Traynelis, PhD, professor, and Hongjie Yuan, MD, PhD, associate professor, both from the Emory School of Medicine’s Department of Pharmacology and Chemical Biology, and Allan Levey, MD, PhD, Robert W. Woodruff Professor of Neurology, Goizueta Foundation Endowed Chair for Alzheimer’s Disease Research and Director of the Goizueta Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center.

As part of the autism-related project, cross-center and cross-departmental collaboration includes Larry Young, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and director of the Center for Translational Social Neuroscience at the Emory National Primate Research Center.

From promise to profound impact

“This work has the potential to be game-changing,” says Elizabeth Krupinski, PhD, professor and vice chair for research in the Department of Radiology and Imaging Sciences. “Dr. Liang’s projects involve drug discovery, radiochemistry and translational PET imaging studies in multiple species, from rodents to nonhuman primates to humans. We are very excited to support this fruitful collaboration, a result of our Team Science approach, and to stimulate cross-departmental interactions to translate basic science discoveries into humans.”

Vikas Sukhatme, MD, ScD, dean of Emory School of Medicine, agrees: “These projects are great examples of Emory’s expertise in bench-to-bedside translational research, research with substantial potential for improving patient care. The work will take place in our new Health Sciences Research Building (HSRB)-II, supported by our Center of Systems Imaging Core, proving what world-class research facilities can to do improve our understanding and treatment of complex conditions.”

Emory: A national leader in advanced imaging innovation

Emory is a natural home for this work, says Amit Saindane, MD, MBA, professor and chair of the Department of Radiology and Imaging Sciences. “Emory Radiology has a stellar record when it comes to developing advanced imaging technology, radiopharmaceutical discovery and translational research.”

That record includes pioneering imaging theragnostics for prostate cancer, discovering imaging agents to detect recurrent prostate cancer, and leading clinical trials for the radiotracer in guiding clinical decision-making for patients with recurring prostate cancer.

Saindane sees this next wave of discovery as equally promising. “The novel PET imaging tools developed by Dr. Liang and his research team show great potential for furthering our understanding of these devastating neurodegenerative and neurodevelopmental diseases. We hope to advance these innovative imaging technologies so they then can be used in research testing novel neurotherapeutics for treatment.”

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