Battling Illness from the Inside Out

Medical imaging helps understand diseases from the outside, but new medical probes can help craft even more precise treatments.

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Collecting information is an important first step to attacking any problem. When confronted with an unknown health problem, medical imaging, such as an MRI or CT scan, allows doctors to see inside a patient’s body. If a cancer is present, these images can reveal its location and size, and what other organs and structures may be affected.

John Valliant, professor of chemistry and chemical biology at McMaster University, is developing probes that may help doctors take even better pictures of diseases, allowing them to match the right treatment to the right patient.

Beyond detecting cancer, Valliant’s probes tease out information on how a particular tumour functions, which can be different, even within the same patient. This gives doctors important clues.

“What you really want to know is, how can I stop the disease? How can I shut it down?” explains Valliant. “By understanding the molecules and the function of the disease on the inside, you can better select the best treatment for the disease.”

These probes can be taken even further by incorporating medical isotopes that give off radiation that not only enable imaging, but also kill nearby cells. Probes that combine imaging diagnostics with therapy are called theranostics. A side benefit is that the cancer can be monitored over time to make sure that treatment is working.

From an economic standpoint, the healthcare system also benefits from personalized medicine.

“New treatments are targeted to specific types of disease, so not all treatments work for all types of prostate cancers. But these treatments are actually very expensive, but work effectively on maybe 20% of the patients,” says Valliant.

Pinpointing the right candidates ensures that each treatment is paired with the patients with the best chance of responding positively.

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Prof. John Valliant, a Professor in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at McMaster University, is internationally recognized for his work in radiopharmaceutical chemistry. His current research focuses on developing new radiolabeling methods and compound discovery strategies to create clinically relevant molecular imaging probes and therapeutic radiopharmaceuticals.

John is also the Chief Executive Officer of the Centre for Probe Development and Commercialization (CPDC), a not-for-profit corporation established in 2008 through funding from the Federal and Provincial governments, industry and academic partners. The CPDC is focused on bridging the gap between academia and industry, by enabling the development and commercialization of promising imaging probes and associated technologies. The Centre employs more than 70 research scientists, production technologists, quality assurance specialists and regulatory affairs experts focused on discovering, developing and distributing the next generation of molecular imaging probes. The CPDC also plays an important role in Ontario’s health care system, manufacturing and delivering a reliable, daily supply of imaging probes to hospitals across the province.

In 2009, Prof. Valliant was selected as one of Canada’s Top 40 Under 40, a distinction that recognizes his work at CPDC and McMaster University to advance molecular imaging probe technologies, improve patient care and spur on economic growth through commercialization of Canadian ideas. The award also acknowledges his commitment to education and training at McMaster and within the imaging industry – a dedication to mentorship that has helped position graduates from the Valliant group to take on key leadership roles in both academic and industry settings in Canada and abroad.

Prof. Valliant has published more than 100 papers, patents and conference proceedings. He has been invited to speak at scientific conferences and leading research centres the world over, including the plenary lecture at the 2009 Society of Nuclear Medicine meeting. Prof. Valliant completed his PhD at McMaster University, and followed with a post-doctoral fellowship under the joint supervision of professors Alun G. Jones (Harvard) and Alan Davison (MIT). Returning to McMaster in 1999 as an assistant professor, he was promoted to full professor in July 2013.