Kilpatrick Stockton’s Gift of $100,000 Helps to Create Innovative Facility
The Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation unveiled Oklahoma’s first small animal magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) facility at a ribbon-cutting ceremony today. With a 10,000-pound magnet that is 140,000 times stronger than the earth’s magnetic field, the facility—one of only about a dozen in the U.S.—will allow scientists to study the cells and organs of genetically engineered mice and rats at near-microscopic levels.
By adding and subtracting genes from rodents, scientists can reproduce human diseases in the animals. Consequently, mice and rats hold the potential key to treating and curing a myriad of diseases.
“This MRI will provide a major boost to scientists throughout Oklahoma and in the surrounding region,” said OMRF President J. Donald Capra, M.D. “It will speed the process of developing tests to diagnose deadly diseases at earlier, more treatable stages. And it will also accelerate our ability to create drugs to treat those diseases.”
According to the facility’s director, Rheal Towner, Ph.D., scientists will use the MRI to focus on three major areas of research: cardiovascular disease, neurological diseases (like Alzheimer’s and Lou Gehrig’s disease) and cancer. “We have ten projects slated for the next few months,” said Towner. “These and other studies over the next year will involve 25 to 30 investigators from institutions around the state: OMRF, the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, OU-Norman, Oklahoma City University and Langston University.”
The dedication is the culmination of a process that began almost two years ago with gifts from the Presbyterian Health Foundation and Tulsa philanthropist Henry Zarrow and culminated with a gift from the law firm of Kilpatrick Stockton and an equipment grant from the National Institutes of Health. The magnet alone cost $1.7 million.
To accommodate the super-conducting magnet, OMRF constructed a new addition to its facility. The annex features highly reinforced floors to support the five-ton magnet and a chamber fully lined with copper to ensure that no external signals interfere with the magnet’s operation. The magnet uses approximately 200 gallons of liquid helium to generate the magnetic field.
Although the MRI is commonplace in human medicine, according to Towner, there are no more than 12 small animal MRI facilities in the country with a magnet as powerful as OMRF’s. “This magnet is about four times as strong as the ones found in hospitals,” he said. “It will allow scientists to view cells and organs as tiny as one-tenth of a millimeter, a resolution far greater than those generated by the MRIs that physicians use to examine human patients.”
With the small animal MRI, scientists can study the same animals over a long period of time without harming them. “The MRI technique is completely non-invasive,” said Towner. “It gives us a way to look inside the animals without surgery, biopsies or injecting dyes.”
According to OMRF President Capra, the new MRI facility will play a key role in the work of Jordan Tang, Ph.D., an OMRF scientist who has created an inhibitor that blocks the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. “To test the effectiveness of drugs he is developing, Dr. Tang needs to be able to understand the brain functions of a mouse as it develops Alzheimer’s,” said Capra.
Although Tang has bred mice that develop Alzheimer’s disease, he had no way to study animals’ brains while they were still alive. With the small animal MRI, Tang will now be able to take daily snapshots of a living mouse’s brain, allowing him to witness the progression of the disease in real time. “Hopefully, this will dramatically reduce the time it takes to produce a drug that combats Alzheimer’s,” Capra said.
In addition to Alzheimer’s research, near-term MRI projects include studies of liver cancer, bladder cancer, leukemia, Lou Gehrig’s disease and diabetes-related cardiomyopathy. “Technologically, the small animal MRI represents a huge leap forward for Oklahoma scientists,” said Capra. “It will streamline the research process, allowing us to more rapidly and effectively transform scientific insight into diagnostic tests and treatments for human disease.”
Congressman Ernest Istook spoke at the dedication. Photos of the event and also of the small animal MRI facility are available on request.
Chartered in 1946, OMRF (www.omrf.org) is a nonprofit biomedical research institute dedicated to understanding and curing human disease. Its scientists focus on such critical research areas as Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, lupus and cardiovascular disease. OMRF is home to Oklahoma’s only member of the National Academy of Sciences.
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