Techniques being developed at Mass General are providing new views of the human brain’s chemical processes as they occur.
Modern medical imaging technology, such as MRI equipment and CT scanners, requires patients to lie as still as possible in a narrow plastic tunnel as magnets or X-rays produce two-dimensional images of internal tissue. These image slices, like slices in a loaf of bread, provide clinicians with a cross-sectional view of the body at rest, helping them study the structure of internal organs and diagnose and treat injuries, cancers and blockages.
But Jacob Hooker, PhD, the newly appointed director of Radiochemistry at Mass General and the associate director of the MGH PET Core, is capturing the human brain’s chemical processes as they occur and developing a fuller picture of one of our most complex and sensitive organs. Dr. Hooker’s approach makes use of radiotracers, chemicals injected into a patient undergoing a positron emission tomography (PET) scan. The PET scanner is able to locate the radiotracer and illuminate the areas where it localizes, providing a non-invasive view of chemical interactions occurring through time in the brain — a bit like watching a motion picture.
“It’s a remarkably powerful tool to better inform our understanding of normal brain function and neurological disorders,” says Dr. Hooker.
Dr. Hooker, a 30-year-old organic chemist and Ironman triathlete, earned the title of “Inventor of the Year” in 2009 while at the Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) for developing new methods to synthesize radiotracers for PET scanners. Working with radiotracers, he must be incredibly fast and efficient because PET technology relies on short-lived radioactive isotopes. That can be challenging: for instance, Dr. Hooker works with carbon-11, an isotope with a half-life of only 20 minutes.
Dr. Hooker’s PET core unit is part of the Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at Mass General. He is able to do his groundbreaking work thanks to a first-of-its kind hybrid MRI/PET scanner recently attained by the unit. This device will expand greatly the types of physiological information that can be gained through non-invasive imaging. It also has the potential to advance the understanding of a variety of fields including oncology, neurology, psychology and psychiatry, cardiology, drug development and pharmacology.
It is no surprise that Dr. Hooker chose to work at BNL and now at Mass General, because both institutions are pioneering PET technology. In the 1950s, Mass General’s Gordon Brownell, PhD, and Charles Burnham, PhD, contributed significantly to the development of the imaging method. Twenty years later at BNL, another team was the first to describe the synthesis of the 18FDG — the most widely used PET radiotracer for basic research and clinical diagnosis to date.
Dr. Hooker says that to tackle the challenges that exist in medicine, especially those related to the human brain, coordination between leading researchers from across all basic and medical sciences is required. As a result, Dr. Hooker actively seeks collaborative links throughout the Boston research community and across the country. By building on the advice and experiences of his colleagues, he hopes to ensure that his work will have real implications for understanding and diagnosing human disease.
In his role at the Martinos Center, which is located at Mass General’s Charlestown Navy Yard laboratories, Dr. Hooker mentors chemists and biologists and creates opportunities for team-oriented science. To date, he has mentored more than 20 students at the undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral level. In addition, he has co-authored more than 25 publications and filed two U.S. patents.
Learn more about MRI/PET and Dr. Hooker’s radiotracer research at the Martinos Center’s web site.