Picture this: Imaging pioneer brings UT MD Anderson an innovative, collaborative focus on capturing cancer as complex system at home in its host

Leader David Piwnica-Worms drawn by exciting vision, opportunities, resources

MD Anderson News Release 02/15/13

Physician-scientist David Piwnica-Worms, M.D., Ph.D. whose creative and pioneering approach to visually capturing molecular processes in action has made him a leader in the field, will assume two important leadership posts at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Piwnica-Worms will chair MD Anderson's Department of Cancer Systems Imaging and will be deputy division head, research affairs, for the Division of Diagnostic Imaging as of June 1.

"The opportunities available at MD Anderson are truly exciting," Piwnica-Worms said. "Ron DePinho articulates a stimulating vision - the Moon Shots Program, the dedication there to enhancing basic and preclinical science to better inform and advance the institution's wonderful, well-established clinical mission and the resources dedicated to that mission are all inspiring."

MD Anderson in September launched its Moon Shots Program, an unprecedented effort to dramatically accelerate the pace of converting scientific discoveries into clinical advances to reduce cancer deaths, starting with eight cancers.

DePinho, MD Anderson's president, said he has long admired Piwnica-Worms' groundbreaking work as director of the Washington University Medical School Molecular Imaging Center and its BRIGHT Institute (Bridging Research with Imaging, Genomics and High-Throughput Technologies).

"David is a giant in molecular imaging and has the leadership skills to bring together multi-disciplinary teams to solve important clinical problems," DePinho said. "His passion for translating research to the clinic to help patients and MD Anderson's great culture will catalyze advances in imaging science here and throughout the field."

Piwnica-Worms has been at the St. Louis medical school for almost 20 years. "On a personal level, we've had a wonderful run at WU, with wonderful colleagues and great experiences. Our move is a reflection of the challenges and excitement of a new opportunity."

The "we" and "our" in that statement includes spouse Helen Piwnica-Worms, Ph.D., who will lead MD Anderson's basic and preclinical research efforts as vice provost for science, an appointment that also begins June 1 (see separate news release). "We're excited to get to Houston and begin building," he said.

Piwnica-Worms will be professor in the departments of Cancer Systems Imaging and Cancer Biology.

Connecting with other scientists early and often
"David is a world-class talent who's highly respected in biochemistry and its application to molecular imaging for cancer," said Marshall Hicks, M.D., head of MD Anderson's Division of Diagnostic Imaging. "Diagnostic imaging stands at a crossroads for many other disciplines and departments at MD Anderson. We need to be highly collaborative."

Imaging is crucial to early detection of cancer and successful monitoring of treatment to assess whether a therapy is working, Hicks noted.

"Instead of a colleague coming to us with a molecular pathway to image after exhaustive research, David wants to be in from the beginning, at the ground level. His style is highly collaborative and we think that will improve the quality and reach of MD Anderson's research," Hicks said.

Focus broadens to visualize cancer cells in their "native state"
The name of the department he will lead has been changed to the Department of Cancer Systems Imaging from Experimental Diagnostic Imaging to reflect a more broad and important focus.

"Ten years ago, the focus of cancer research was on the cancer cell itself - signaling pathways, molecular targets, genetics, that were autonomous to the cancer cell," Piwnica-Worms said.

"Flash ahead 10 years and research by many investigators has established that cancer is a system that interacts with its surrounding microenvironment, the immune system and stroma, supportive tissue that provides scaffolding for cells," he said.

"Molecular imaging is a set of tools and strategies to take a noninvasive, repetitive and dynamic look at cancer in its native state," Piwnica-Worms said. "We will still do microscopy and conventional molecular biology, but our long-term goal is to drive our inquiries to the whole animal and even into patients to understand what cancer cells are doing in the host."

Research will include new methods within two broad approaches:

  • Use of injectable agents, such as radiopharmaceuticals, small molecules and contrast agents for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), computerized tomography (CT) scanning or positron emission tomography (PET) imaging.
  • Genetically encoded reporters, genes integrated into cell or animal DNA as knock-in reporters, particularly those that fire up a bioluminescent (glowing) gene from North American fireflies to shed light on a specific cell, protein or condition.

'Visionary, yet practical, leadership'
"We want to pursue our interest in unique imaging resources and strategies and provide opportunities for our colleagues to take the same approaches - for single cells, groups of cells or whole animals," he said.

Piwnica-Worms has developed imaging techniques to illuminate all three of those levels. He has created genetically encoded bioluminescent and radiotracer reporter systems to highlight essential cellular functions such as signal transduction, protein-protein interactions, and transcriptional regulation of genes.

"Dr. Piwnica-Worms has helped catalyze the application of genetically-encoded molecular imaging approaches to diverse medical and basic biological questions and has repeatedly moved his scientific discoveries from bench to bedside," said Hedvig Hricak, M.D., Ph.D., chair of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Institute's Department of Radiology

"He is a highly respected physician-scientist known for his vision, innovations and tremendous love for mentoring. With his ceaseless creativity and unsurpassed expertise in translational research and technology, he will provide visionary, yet practical, leadership - and MD Anderson is indeed very fortunate to be able to recruit him," Hricak said.