Inside Mizzou: Translational Research & Precision Health

Human head x-ray encircled by DNA helix strand

Sept. 24, 2019

This past June, we broke ground on the NextGen Precision Health Institute. When completed, this $221 million facility will be a revolutionary space where scholars and students from a wide array of disciplines can tackle the world’s grand health care challenges and lead tomorrow’s workforce. But building the future of health care here in Columbia is just one part of the intricate, collaborative web of research already happening across campus.

On this week’s episode of Inside Mizzou, Chancellor Alexandar N. Cartwright talks with Tom Spencer, Curators Distinguished Professor in the Division of Animal Sciences and a member of the National Academy of Sciences; and Jakob Baumeister, a doctoral student in radiochemistry who also works at the University of Missouri Research Reactor (MURR). They discuss the ins-and-outs of translational research and precision health, as well as what the NextGen Institute means for Missouri and beyond.

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Moderator: [00:00:10] From the classroom to the cornfield, journalism to SEC athletics, the University of Missouri works 52 weeks a year, every year. This is Inside Mizzou — real stories, real discoveries and real impact of the Mizzou community. This past June, the University of Missouri, in partnership with the UM system, broke ground on the NextGen Precision Health Institute. The NexGen Institute is the first research building being built at Mizzou in over a decade. And when completed, this $220 million dollar complex will be a revolutionary space where researchers, scholars and students can tackle the world’s grand health care challenges. It’s a brave new world for the Mizzou community. But building the future of health care right here in Columbia is just one part of the complex, collaborative web of translational research already happening across campus. Joining Chancellor Cartwright to talk more about this are: Dr. Tom Spencer, Curators Distinguished Professor in the Division of Animal Sciences and a member of the National Academy of Sciences; and Jakob Baumeister, a doctoral student in radiochemistry who also works at the University of Missouri Research Reactor, or MURR. Thank you all for being here.

Everyone: [00:01:19] Thank you. It’s good to be here.

Moderator: [00:01:21] So Chancellor Cartwright, this episode is all about translational research and precision health, which may be new terms for some people. Can you explain these fields for us and how they are connected?

Chancellor Cartwright: [00:01:31] Well, you know, translational research in itself is just a term that refers to the fact that we do a lot of research in our labs — or at least on the bench — and that research then finds its way to the public. We can argue that all that we do is translational research, eventually making it out there for the benefit of society. But in fact, recently, a lot of people have started using the term translational research to refer to translational medicine. How do we take work that’s happening on a bench related to medical care and then translate that all the way to the bedside? So you’ll hear the term “bench-to-bedside” corresponding to translational research. In terms of precision health, what we’re talking about there is how do we make use of all the advances that we have in data analytics? How do we take our knowledge base about people in general and think about how we could apply that to specific diseases that we have? We’re always thinking about disease prevention and detection, and really focused on what are the specific factors that can improve the quality of a person’s health. In our way, what we’re thinking about is how do we take the work that we’re doing and then create new diagnostics, new tests, new treatments, new therapeutics for individuals who may have particular diseases? And we want to do that in a way that allows us to be specific to a particular person. And so you’ll hear — in what we’re doing in our NextGen Precision Health Institute — you’ll hear us talk about not just precision health, but we also talk about personalized health. And so that’s the combination of all the things we can achieve with analytics that allow us to to think collectively about what all is going on with health care. But then also how do we include genetics, other things, environment, all of the things that are more specific to an individual? And the combination of those is what we’re interested in. And then, of course, take all of that basic research, basic experimentation that we’re doing and translate that out for the benefit of society.

Moderator: [00:04:03] Okay. Definitely a lot to take into consideration. Dr. Spencer, your current research deals with animal reproduction, such as infertility and pregnancy loss. But this research also has profound implications for women’s health — the translational aspect of it. Tell us more about your research.

Tom Spencer: [00:04:19] Yeah. So, I mean, basically both domestic animals that we use for food production and nutrition of humans, as well as women, experience infertility and pregnancy loss. And so basically in a woman’s reproductive lifetime, approximately 30-40 percent of women will experience pregnancy loss and have to go to an OBGYN to try to understand what is the nature of their pregnancy loss and and to help them successfully become pregnant. The one aspect of this infertility and pregnancy loss is that the majority of it occurs before a chemical recognition of pregnancy — that is before you can detect it using a current early pregnancy test. And so that makes it very difficult to study. In addition, you know, it’s ethically impossible to study early pregnancy in women.

Moderator: [00:05:14] Right.

Tom Spencer: [00:05:15] And so that’s why we need animal models, and that’s traditionally why we’ve used the animal models — both domestic as well as laboratory, and now a lot of in vitro stem cell models to study this early pregnancy process. And because animals experience the same loss, this represents an economic loss to the producer. And so we take our findings in terms of what we understand about the basic biology of early pregnancy in domestic animals, and we use that knowledge to improve not only their health and well-being, but also translate that knowledge into what we understand about human early pregnancy.

Moderator: [00:05:58] Awesome. You would never think there is a correlation, but that’s extremely interesting how you can bring those two worlds together. Jakob, let’s shift gears for a little bit. Your work is in radiochemistry, and you’re involved with the University of Missouri Research Reactor, or MURR. What kind of work takes place at MURR, and how does it help us think about the process of translating research into real solutions?

Jakob Baumeister: [00:06:21] So the University of Missouri Research Reactor is a 10-megawatt nuclear reactor. It’s actually the largest university research reactor in the country. The director of MURR, Dave Robertson, likes to say that there are applications of the reactor in fields from anthropology all the way to zoology. But the kind of focus of the reactor has been in the development of radiopharmaceuticals. These are drugs that use radioactive isotopes for either diagnostic or therapeutic purposes. And really, one of the goals of the reactor is to develop the next generation of therapeutic and diagnostic procedures. MURR has really a history of developing products from the bench-to-the-bedside or developing commercial products. Some examples of that are our Ceretec, which uses the isotope Technetium-99m for for brain imaging. There’s also the drug Quadramet, which uses Samarium-153 for the treatment of individuals with painful bone cancer. Oftentimes, individuals with different types of cancer, it’ll metastasize and will develop these painful lesions on their bone. So it’s a form of palliative care. And really the third example is something called TheraSphere, which uses you Yttrium-90 for the treatment of inoperable liver cancer. So what the reactor provides, though, is a source of isotopes for producing isotopes that can then then get incorporated into radiopharmaceuticals. And some of these are actually sold to commercial entities and used in humans. Some of the isotopes that are produced are also just used for the research community at Mizzou for testing the separation of isotopes or testing new types of compounds for new treatments.

Chancellor Cartwright: [00:08:18] Jacob, I had a question. I mean, you gave a great description of all the things that are happening in the nuclear reactor. Can you help us a little bit, understand a little bit more about the work that’s being done there and how it may have a commercial application and which of the particular isotopes you’re talking about might actually be available to people commercially? And in fact, impacting the lives of so many people around the world?

Jakob Baumeister: [00:08:44] Yes. So a lot of the work that I’ve done is focused on isotopes of rhenium. The reason why we’re interested in rhenium is because rhenium as an element is very similar to the element technetium. Technetium-99m is actually the most common isotope used in nuclear medicine. It’s used in an estimated 45 million diagnostic procedures worldwide, with about 17 million of them occurring in the U.S. There are technetium agents have been used for heart imaging, for brain imaging, for imaging gastrointestinal issues, but really the only application of technetium isn’t to imaging. What we would like to do is to be able to take some of these imaging agents and make a therapeutic version, because there have been imaging agents for different types of tumors. Say like prostate cancer or neuroendocrine tumors. Rhenium both has chemical similarity to technetium, but also a number of isotopes that are useful for therapy. So so some of the research that I’ve been doing and that other individuals at the Reactor been doing is how can we develop rhenium radiopharmaceuticals that are similar or that are the therapeutic analogue to their diagnostic technetium counterparts?

Chancellor Cartwright: [00:10:06] What makes us so unique in this area? How can — how are we so positioned to actually look at this compared to other other universities?

Jakob Baumeister: [00:10:18] I think what makes the University of Missouri unique: One is just having the Reactor. So you can produce a whole multitude of radioactive isotopes and then use them with a principle called the radiotracer principle, where a radioactive atom will behave chemically similar to a non-radioactive atom. And so we can use these radioactive atoms to study how different compounds move throughout the body. Also at the University of Missouri, we have a veterinary medicine school. We have a medicine school for human medicine. And so we have researchers that actually want to use these isotopes and apply them into animal models and eventually into humans. And so research that’s done both, you know, in the chemistry department and the biology department then gets applied at MURR and then MURR can develop isotopes that then get used also in the School of Medicine and the Vet Med school.

Moderator: [00:11:19] Great, awesome. No collaboration is definitely key, especially when it comes to any kind of research in general, but I feel like definitely medicine. So Chancellor Cartwright, we’ve mentioned the NextGen Institute a couple of times already. But I want to dive a little deeper into what it is and what it will help us do. Why is this facility the next step in health care for our campus, our state and the world?

Chancellor Cartwright: [00:11:39] You know, when you when you look at the amount of talent that there is around the university, we have incredible professors like Professor Spencer who just have the intellectual capacity to really look at grand challenges of society — looking at cancer, looking at heart disease, other things that are impacting so many people. And while we have the intellectual capacity, we want to make sure that we match that with the physical spaces that are needed, the instrumentation, the things that will allow them to be able to perform and be the best in the world. Great researchers deserve great spaces, spaces that will challenge them to even do more than they thought possible. And that’s what this is about, is how do we create an institute that allows them to come together in one location, that allows them to work with industry partners who would also be co-located, and that can be thinking about what are the challenges that they’re experiencing in their particular industry and then be able to tap into that remarkable power that we have in our faculty and our researchers and our graduate students and our undergraduate students. That capacity to think and to solve problems is one that is really the hallmark of a great university. And we want to be able to put them together in a particular location, the NextGen Precision Health Institute that allows them to then think how could they contribute even more to society? I think, you know, Professor Spencer can probably talk a little bit about, you know, how he has benefited from working with other collaborators across the university and how that allows your research to even be more impactful.

Tom Spencer: [00:13:45] I mean, one of the reasons I came here about five years ago was because I had the opportunity to be at a land-grant university with, I would argue, the best research-based animal science department in the nation, but also had a School of Medicine and a School of Veterinary Medicine. So I’m joint appointed the School of Medicine’s Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Women’s Health. And what I like about it is that it allows me to interact with colleagues that fundamentally change the nature of the research that I’ve done. So, for instance, since I joined here, I started a program with Danny Schust, an OBGYN, where we’re looking at endometrial stem cells. And then we took advantage of of an internal grant process where now we’re involving bioengineering, as well as individuals in the Bond Life Sciences Center so we can try to make an artificial model of early pregnancy in the human. And this will be very important for drug discovery and endocrine disruptor-type discovery, as well as I can imagine — like, you know, listening to Jakob earlier — you know, we have the only place in the nation that is NIH-funded to produce pigs as a biomedical research model. And so because they’re about the same size as a human when they’re fully grown, I can imagine we could make a model for endometrial cancer, which is the most common cancer that women get. And then we could work with colleagues in chemistry and MURR, as well as engineering and vet medicine, to allow us to perhaps develop a novel therapeutic diagnostic imaging technique. And so this would also involve, you know, cancer researchers and our Ellis Fischel Cancer Center as well. And so I can imagine these types of possibilities that the NextGen Precision Health Institute is really going to nucleate. And it’s going to propel us to do things that we never did before because we have the opportunity to bring new people in, but also to facilitate collaboration across the campus as well as the UM system.

Moderator: [00:15:56] So, we’ve spoken a lot about collaboration just within the last few questions. Dr. Spencer, you’re a professor of animal science. Jakob, you’re a chemist. And Chancellor Cartwright, you’re an engineer. This kind of multidisciplinary interaction is critical to Mizzou’s vision for the NextGen Institute. What are the benefits of having so many people across the disciplines working together here to solve some of the world’s greatest health care challenges?

Tom Spencer: [00:16:19] I think modern-day research, you have to be collaborative and interdisciplinary in nature. It’s fundamental to getting grants, particularly extramural grants as well as industry or corporate-type grants, and it allows you to do more. Because now we’ve discovered so much in science. It’s a lot more complex than, say, when I graduated 25 years ago with my PhD, and even then I understood the value of collaborative research. And so nowadays, I think, number one: It’s fun, right? I mean, research should be fun. It’s fun to work with people that come at things at different angles. But also it’s just critical to continue to grow and develop as a scientist, and particularly both older, established scientists as well as younger scientists, it allows you to kind of help train the next generation of scientists through this inherently collaborative research enterprise.

Jakob Baumeister: [00:17:20] I think one of the benefits of collaboration is just that it allows you to focus on the things that you’re good at. So we’re trying to develop radiopharmaceuticals, which requires expertise — both in producing isotopes and designing chemical complexes in creating targeted agents that would uptake at certain receptors. This requires people in physics, engineering who have expertise in the production of isotopes. This requires expertise and coordination, chemistry, how do we actually make complexes? And also in the design of peptides and antibodies, so a lot of biological work. So each of these people — you know, whoever is doing the work — can focus on what they’re really good at, but then come together, you know, at the same table, at the same lab to accomplish one goal.

Chancellor Cartwright: [00:18:22] You know, what’s great about Mizzou is that I think we do have a spirit of collaboration, and it really is thinking all about what it means for society. I used to have on my email, you know, at the bottom was a statement that said something like, “A team is made up of talented individuals.” As Jacob was mentioning, people who are really skilled in their areas but that trust each other. And that’s how you get an effective team, because you believe in the person around you. You believe that they know what they’re doing, and that they can they can help you. And it’s that ability to be able to work across disciplines, to be able to know that the person next to you understands more than you do in a particular area, and where you come together is at those boundaries. I often talk about the beauty at the boundaries, because I think there’s so much discovery that can occur at the boundaries, where we know enough about what we’re doing and if we can then learn enough about the other language — the other discipline that people are using — that we can come together and have an appreciation for a problem in a way that we wouldn’t have thought of before. And that can’t happen, you know, sitting in your own office, sitting in your own lab. You actually have to go out and and start talking to other people, and it challenges your way of thinking because we may be looking at the same equations, but we might be calling them different things. We might be approaching the problem from whatever our specific discipline is. And if we start working together, then we start to recognize where there’s opportunities where we may be able to improve on each other’s techniques. That’s what this is about. And I think it takes a commitment to that. It takes a commitment to wanting to have an impact on society that is not about your own personal accomplishments, but rather what you’re doing to solve a grand challenge of society. Can we cure a disease? Can we make a person’s life better? And I think that’s what’s great here, is that I see so many people at Mizzou that care deeply about the impact of their research — not just being wanting to do it because they’re interested in a particular area, but because they want to see that move out into all 114 counties in Missouri and ultimately around the world. And I think you’ve seen a couple examples today of that, and we have many more that are like that. So collaboration is the key here, and I think it is the future for science.

Moderator: [00:21:17] I think that’s a great way to end up the episode. So thank you all for joining us today to discuss your work. Now, there’s just one more thing to do before we leave. How did the barber when the race?

Chancellor Cartwright: [00:21:31] How did the barber win the race?

Jakob Baumeister: [00:21:31] Did he cut a corner?

Moderator: [00:21:34] No, but he knew a shortcut.

Chancellor Cartwright: [00:21:36] Oh, that’s pretty close.

Tom Spencer: [00:21:38] Very good.

Moderator: [00:21:44] Our audio engineer is Aaron Hay. Our featured music is composed by MU master student Niko D. Schroeder and performed by the Donald Sinta Quartet. You can find more information about Niko, the Quartet and their piece on the Inside Mizzou webpage. Make sure to join us next time to stay on top of what’s happening at Mizzou. Thanks for joining us on this episode. See you around the Columns!