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June 22, 2022

A targeted and personalized approach to fighting cancer

Using radioisotopes to diagnose and treat cancer

Q&A with biomedical engineer Kurt Zinn

Michigan State University is one of the top 100 research universities in the world and a member of the prestigious Association of American Universities, widely regarded as among the top research-intensive institutions in North America. The following story highlights one of the many examples of MSU’s research excellence and innovation.

Kurt Zinn is a professor of biomedical engineering in the Colleges of Engineering, Human Medicine and Veterinary Medicine and Investigator at the Institute of Quantitative Health Science and Engineering.

Q: What kind of research is conducted in your laboratory?

Kurt Zinn
Kurt Zinn

A: We do translational research. We take the results of basic research and convert them into studies that directly benefit people. What we really want to do is to use targeted radiation therapy from radioisotopes in combination with immunotherapies to get a systemic immune response to cure cancer. Essentially, it is like immunizing your body against your own cancer by killing the cancer with radiation through these unique isotopes that are specifically targeted to the cancer.

Q: What is an isotope and radioisotope?

A: An isotope is an element like hydrogen with additional neutrons added to give the element different properties.

Radioisotopes are radioactive isotopes, with constant proton numbers but variable numbers of neutrons.  Radioisotopes may be either short-lived or long-lived.

Q: How are radioisotopes used to diagnose and treat cancer?

A: We use radioisotopes for cancer imaging and therapy in biomedical research.
The radioisotopes are the raw materials that are transformed into therapeutic agents that can be used to identify and diagnose where cancer is located in the body.  We also refer to these agents as “tracers” to indicate the mass (amount) that we administer is very low.

For treating cancer, we have successfully tested alpha particle therapy using the radioisotope Pb-214 (lead isotope) in ovarian cancer animal models. This is a new kind of radiation therapy that targets cancer and causes much less damage to the surrounding healthy tissue.

Q: Which cancers are currently being studied through your biomedical research?

A: We want to not just to kill the cancer, but to use it as a way to immunize the patient against the cancer. So, if cancer comes back in the future or if you don't get all of the cancer, you can still have a good prognosis. We currently have ongoing preclinical trials for ovarian cancer, plans for clinical trials for prostate cancer and will meet with the FDA soon to obtain guidance for conducting a funded clinical trial for bladder cancer using alpha-particle therapy.

Q: Why is the research being done at MSU’s Facility for Rare Isotope Beams or FRIB so important?

A: FRIB is one of the main reasons I came to MSU because of the by-product radioisotopes that will be available. This means we can do research that no one else can do. Being able to develop these rare radioisotopes is helpful, because it enables experiments to be done that would not otherwise be possible.

For example, for alpha particle therapy with certain generator systems, it could cost up to $50,000 to obtain a generator for one to two weeks of experiments. So, being able to harvest the byproducts radioisotopes right here at MSU and have them continuously available for experiments puts us in a unique position. Especially in the case of short-lived radioisotopes, you are fighting against the clock to get our experiments done prior to decay of the radioisotope. If the radioisotope has a half-life of 27 minutes that means in 27 minutes, half of the radioisotope is decayed and gone. We must do what we need to do fast.

By: Emilie Lorditch