Making medical imaging more accessible with better molecules

Researchers are working with a California company to develop new imaging techniques that are cheaper and easier to manufacture
Olivia Carey
McGill University
Organic chemistry
A view of the top of a woman’s head through the cylinder of a medical imaging machine

Medical imaging often relies on radioactive substances, but those can be expensive and they come with challenges in terms of logistics and availability. A research collaboration between the California-based company, Fuzionaire Diagnostics (Fuzionaire Dx), and McGill University aims to find alternatives that will make medical imaging more accessible and able to diagnose more diseases.

The idea originated when Anton Toutov, Fuzionaire Dx’s Chief Science Officer, helped make an important discovery while he was completing his PhD at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California.

Working under the supervision of Nobel Prize winner Robert Grubbs, Toutov and his fellow graduate students found that they could use potassium, an abundant and green alkali metal, as a catalyst to trigger chemical reactions.

“Our catalyst has the advantage of working at lower temperatures and using readily available materials to drive certain chemical reactions,” says Toutov, making it a less expensive and more sustainable option.

One such reaction allowed the researchers to create molecules containing silicon that have properties that make them useful for disease diagnosis and drug development.

Toutov founded Fuzionaire Dx to take the patented technology to the field of Positron Emission Tomography (PET), an important diagnostic tool for cancer, brain disorders and cardiovascular diseases.

Using silicon to illuminate the brain

To help realize that vision, in 2019 Toutov turned to CFI-funded Jean-Philip Lumb, an Associate Professor in the Department of Chemistry at McGill University and Alexey Kostikov, an Associate Professor at the Montreal Neurological Institute.

PET imaging usually relies on injecting a patient with a radioactive drug, called a tracer, that attaches itself to different types of molecules in our bodies. A concentration of the tracer could indicate a disease such as cancerous tumours or neurodegenerative conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease or Parkinson’s disease. But even the most widely used tracers are limited in what they can be used to detect as well as by how challenging they are to produce.

Fuzionaire Dx and its research partners are developing a class of silicon-based tracers that would more precisely target a range of health disorders and that can be manufactured more efficiently.

Finding a new approach for more precise imaging

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“What you want are molecules that don’t touch any other part of the body except the target of interest,” Lumb explains. “You can’t open up somebody’s brain and go digging around in there and then put it back together. So you really need imaging technologies that allow you to look inside the brain in a non-invasive way,” Lumb says. “Fuzionaire Dx is interested in expanding the toolbox of molecules that you can use in order to do that sort of non-invasive looking.”

Fuzionaire Dx expects that its first precision radiotracers could enter clinical trials in two to three years, Toutov says. “We’re planning to develop precision radiotracers for many disease areas and for a number of drug discovery programs,” he says. “We’re expanding our ongoing work with both academic labs and industry in order to do exactly that.”