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Sept. 21, 2022

MSU brings better cancer diagnosis and treatment home to Michigan

Michigan State University is building on its leadership and history in cancer care with partnerships that expand accessible precision treatment in the state

At the corner of Michigan Street and Monroe Avenue along the “Medical Mile” in Grand Rapids, some of the world’s most advanced precision cancer treatments are beginning to take place inside the Michigan State University Grand Rapids Innovation Park.

Within the walls of the Doug Meijer Medical Innovation Building — a 205,000-square-foot facility in the innovation park dedicated to biomedical research and public-private partnerships — the medical innovation company Bold Advanced Medical Future Health welcomed the arrival of the nation’s first total-body PET/CT scanner for clinical use on patients. MSU’s partnership with BAMF Health accelerates cancer research through a pipeline of advanced clinical research combined with the latest technology.

Doug Meijer Medical Innovation building
Norman Beauchamp Jr., executive vice president for Health Sciences at MSU

“Together with BAMF Health, Doug Meijer and the Meijer Foundation, we are making this world-leading technology available to the people of Michigan,” says Norman Beauchamp Jr., executive vice president for Health Sciences at MSU. “This scanner enables the diagnosis of cancer earlier to enable more effective treatment.”

Norman Beauchamp Jr., executive vice president for Health Sciences at MSU

For more than 50 years, MSU has been a leader in cancer research and treatment, from the discovery of cisplatin, the gold standard in cancer drugs, to building a dual-cyclotron radiopharmacy that produces radioactive isotopes used to treat cancer and help patients in Michigan and around the world. Now, the total-body PET/CT scanner — made possible through MSU’s partnership with BAMF Health and in part by an honorary Spartan’s generosity — enables both research and clinical care and is the next step in MSU’s cancer story.

In August, the PET/CT scanner was used to diagnose and treat patients with prostate cancer and neuroendocrine tumors. Future uses of the technology will extend to pediatric cancers and eventually heart disease, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

“That is our vision realized for MSU — the best care, closer to home,” Beauchamp says. “I believe that together we will be able to better detect and diagnose disease and transform health.”

Patient receiving a PET/CT scan

Pinpointing cancer earlier and faster

In 2020, an estimated 1.8 million new cases of cancer were diagnosed in the United States, according to the National Cancer Institute. In Michigan, that number was estimated at nearly 62,000.

Thanks to the advanced technology of the PET/CT scanner, doctors can now see exactly where cancer is located in the body by combining two already-established methods. Positron emission tomography, or PET, uses a radioactive tracer that is injected into the body to identify cancer. Once the cancer is found, the tracer binds to the cancer cells and emits a signal detected by the PET scanner. The second method is computerized tomography, or CT imaging technology, which reveals a detailed image of anywhere cancer is present, whether it is on the lungs or inside a bone, for example.

Mark DeLano, professor and chair of Radiology at the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

“We call it hybrid technology when you mix two different kinds of imaging together and you get new insights,” says Mark DeLano, a professor and chair of the Department of Radiology in the MSU College of Human Medicine, who uses this technology to guide the treatment of cancer patients. “A PET scan pinpoints the tumor markers inside your body such as specific proteins on cancer cells or how much energy the tumor is using, and the CT scanner looks more at your structure, such as bones, organs and blood vessels.”

This makes the total-body PET/CT scanner technology the ideal tool to diagnose and guide the treatment of cancer. Until now, this technology had only been used in the U.S. for research purposes.

The pinpoint accuracy — and speed — of the technology are a major benefit to patients. A typical head-to-toe PET scan takes about 40 minutes to complete. For patients who are already anxious or uncomfortable, this can feel like an eternity, and to hold still that long is even more of a challenge for children or for individuals with claustrophobia or other conditions. When a patient moves during the scan, it greatly reduces both the accuracy of the stitching process used to create a cohesive image and the quality of the final image. This can profoundly impact the ability to detect small tumors. The new scanner eliminates both issues.

Patient undergoing a total-body PET/CT scan. A: Maximum intensity projection, which is a 3D reconstructed image from the PET/CT imaging. B: PET image C: CT image D: PET/CT fused together. Image courtesy of BAMF Health

“With this cutting-edge total-body PET/CT scanner, we can finish the full-body scan in one minute and scan 194 centimeters (76 inches) at one time,” says Anthony Chang, founder and chief executive officer of BAMF Health. “That means it takes one-fortieth of the time.”

The entire patient is imaged in a single scan, which improves the final image quality and the detection of small tumors and lesions. By detecting cancer earlier, researchers can initiate more aggressive therapeutic options sooner and be more confident in reducing therapeutic intensity if there is no evidence of widespread disease.

“Conventional scanners can detect signs of cancer one centimeter (0.39 inches) in size, but this new scanner can detect signs of cancer less than two millimeters (less than one-tenth of an inch) in size,” says Chang.

Anthony Chang and Doug Meijer walking along a hallway in the Doug Meijer Medical Innovation Building

Turning ‘Why me?’ into ‘Why not me?’

Doug Meijer, business leader and honorary Spartan

The story of how this breakthrough technology came about has Michigan roots.

When Doug Meijer, business leader, co-chair of the U.S. supermarket chain Meijer, and the recipient of an honorary doctorate of humanities from MSU, was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2017, traditional radiation and chemotherapy in the U.S. were unable to treat his cancer. Meijer was fortunate to have the means to travel to Germany with Chang to receive treatment under a clinical trial that saved his life. This experience, and a serendipitous meeting with Beauchamp, inspired Meijer to provide this opportunity to people in Michigan and the U.S. so more patients could receive the same level of treatment he did.

Doug Meijer, business leader and honorary Spartan

“When I was first diagnosed, I thought, ‘Why me?’” Meijer says. “Then I realized, I can do something about this and my thoughts changed to, ‘Why not me?’”

“This really was stimulated by Doug Meijer and the Meijer Foundation and Anthony Chang’s insights,” says DeLano. “Meijer's prostate cancer treatment journey took him around the globe and inspired his vision of creating a center in Grand Rapids. His philanthropic support is making cutting-edge care accessible to patients here in the U.S.”

Meijer’s drive to bring cancer care to all people is what launched the vision into reality. By utilizing a generous $19.5 million gift to the MSU College of Human Medicine from Meijer and his family’s foundation, MSU had the ability to purchase two cyclotrons (a type of particle accelerator), build the radiopharmacy and add state-of-the-art imaging equipment, including a PET/MRI scanner that is scheduled to arrive at the end of September. BAMF Health owns the PET/CT scanner. MSU leases the building space to BAMF Health under an operational agreement that provides MSU researchers access to the technologies for further research studies.

“I truly believe that everything happens for a reason,” Meijer says. “I lived to make it possible for others to live.”

A researcher is creating radioactive isotopes inside the radiopharmacy

Tailoring treatments to each patient

“We know detecting cancer or the recurrence of cancer early leads to better outcomes,” says Beauchamp. “Better imaging with the PET/CT scanner will lead to more precise treatment.”

PET/CT scans provide a roadmap so doctors can identify the best way to approach a tumor and give a more precise and personalized treatment to the patient using molecular targeted radiation therapy.

“We call it theranostics,” DeLano says. “It’s a combination of therapeutics and diagnostics.”

Technologists perform a PET/CT scan on a patient.

Traditionally, radiation therapy kills cancer cells, but it also damages healthy cells as the radiation beam enters, bounces around inside and then exits a patient’s body. However, with theranostics, doctors will be able to deliver a radiation dose to the tumor without causing significant damage to healthy tissue. This means better quality of life for patients.

BAMF Health has built the first dedicated theranostics center of excellence in the U.S. and the most advanced in the world. MSU’s partnership with BAMF Health leverages novel radiopharmaceuticals and the latest imaging devices available to advance research and bring the best care to patients throughout Michigan and around the country.

“Because this treatment specifically targets the tumor, we can deliver a high dose of radiation to the tumor and have very limited damage to the surrounding healthy tissue,” says Chang. “With one simple IV injection, we can continually irradiate the tumors nonstop, 24 hours a day, seven days a week for up to six weeks versus the current practice where the patients have to come back to the hospital every day for treatment.”

Another advantage of the PET/CT scanner’s location is its proximity to MSU’s world-class radiopharmacy. MSU and BAMF Health’s radiopharmacy, home to two advanced GE PETtrace 890 cyclotrons, is the most modern and advanced dual-cyclotron radiopharmacy in the world. This is critical because most PET imaging radiotracers use short-life radioisotopes that exist for just minutes to hours and need to be used immediately on patients within the clinic. Radioisotopes are elements like iron with a constant number of protons but a variable number of neutrons. They are the ingredients used to make therapeutic agents or tracers to find and treat cancer.

“These radioisotopes don’t exist very long,” says DeLano. “So, to be able to create them here and to be able to use them directly on patients is important.”

With the radiopharmacy housed in the same building as the PET/CT technology, it is possible that a patient could walk into the building in the morning, get their diagnosis and begin treatment on the same day.

“This is the world’s most advanced medical imaging technology,” says Chang.

Creating better outcomes for all

“Patients from all over Michigan and beyond will benefit from access to what is being offered here,” said DeLano. “MSU has multiple partners throughout the state and patients who receive care at our BAMF Health theranostics center will have their care continued near their homes, or if local, at our partner facilities such as Spectrum Health and Mercy Health Saint Mary’s.”

While great strides are being made in cancer care and treatment, they are not yet reaching patients equitably.

“Everyone should have access to the latest and the greatest and the best technologies for treating cancer. Because this means better outcomes,” says Beauchamp. “One of the ways that we are going to facilitate that is to bring together the strengths that MSU has on the education and the research side.”

The community-based nature of MSU Health Sciences, which includes the colleges of Human Medicine, Osteopathic Medicine and Nursing, means MSU researchers work alongside local hospitals and health providers.

MSU is committed to treating cancer patients of all economic backgrounds across the state thanks to partnerships with BAMF Health and Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids, the Karmanos Cancer Institute at McLaren in Lansing and Henry Ford Health System in Detroit.

Together, MSU and its partners are investing in groundbreaking research for cancer and closing the gap in health disparities, particularly in our most vulnerable communities.

“One of our goals at Michigan State is to make sure that regardless of where you live or the color of your skin, you will have access to the best in cancer care and cancer clinical trials," says Beauchamp.

Support MSU's cancer research here.


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By: Emilie Lorditch and Deon Foster

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