Paul O’Gorman Building, University College London,
72 Huntley Street, London, WC1E 6DD
United Kingdom

The Witney Group at UCL's Centre for Advanced Biomedical Imaging. Specialising in the development of advanced cancer imaging tools.


Measuring fat breakdown to detect cancer


Last year I moved to the United States to take up a postdoctoral position at Stanford University in the lab of Prof. Sanjiv Sam Gambhir. I'm lucky enough to work in a very creative environment, nicely summed-up in this video. Living in the US however has brought some challenges I've been ill-equipped to deal with. Namely, how to avoid getting run over when crossing a road (walking seems to be prohibited here) and what to do to stop getting fat. High fructose corn syrup is added to pretty much everything and it costs nearly the same amount to eat out as to buy the constituent ingredients (eating out is cheap!). I don't stand much of a chance. Running across the road however may solve both issues.

Given my rapidly-expanding waistline, it seems pretty appropriate that my research during my last year at Imperial College London focused on measuring the breakdown of fat by cancer cells. As I mentioned in my last blog, cancer cells take up more glucose for energy production and storage. Additionally, tumours require increased levels of fat to make new cells and to create even more energy. The breakdown of fats at high rates to produce this energy sets cancer cells apart from most normal 'healthy' tissue. We have recently shown that by imaging fat breakdown, we can detect breast, prostate and brain cancer in preclinical (non-human) models, published this month in The Journal of Nuclear Medicine. This is important as existing techniques to identify and diagnose both brain and prostate cancer are not effective in all cases. Further tests, such as the one proposed in this research article, may provide additional information and eliminate the need for an invasive biopsy. By accurately detecting these cancers at an early stage, the chances of survival are greatly improved. We're still some way off evaluating this diagnostic test in patients, but I have high hopes for this new imaging technique, an example of which is shown below:

In other cool news this week, my academic mentor at Stanford, Prof. Sanjiv Sam Gambhir, is partnering with Google's secret research division, Google [x] - the division that's brought us Google Glass and those internet balloons. The idea behind this project, named Baseline, is to define and thoroughly characterise the genetic and molecular make-up of healthy adults (initially from 175 people, increasing to many thousands). By understanding the key features of good health, it's hoped that we may be better placed to understand and detect things that go wrong. Details of this project are light on the ground, but it's thought that some cool wearables, such as the 'smart contact lense', will be used to monitor those enrolled in the project 24/7. Let's hope this ambitious project results in a major scientific breakthrough.