A new state-of-the-art nuclear medicine imaging unit, which is expected to reap big benefits for research, particularly into tuberculosis (TB), is currently under development at Stellenbosch University.
The Node for Infection Imaging (NII) is being constructed on the grounds of Tygerberg Hospital. In excess of R50 million from the Department of Science and Technology, Stellenbosch University and The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has been committed to the project, which will be managed by the Central Analytical Facilities and will work in close association with the Division of Nuclear Medicine at the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences. The NII will include a new PET-CT scanner and an expanded radiopharmacy. It will be staffed by a specialist team dedicated to supporting research using PET-CT.
Dr Alex Doruyter, director of the NII, explained that PET-CT is an imaging technique that allows for non-invasive, precision imaging of biological processes through the use of radioactive molecules of interest (radiopharmaceuticals); coupled with the anatomical detail of conventional CT scanning. “This allows researchers to visualise and quantify selected biological processes with a high degree of accuracy,” he said.
Doruyter, said he was “really excited” for the big challenge that lies ahead. As a nuclear physician, he will play a dual role in the operation: both directing and administering the facility; as well as giving advice on the imaging protocols and in interpreting and analysing the scans.
According to Doruyter, although PET-CT has been available in the Western Cape for some time (there is a scanner at Tygerberg Hospital and one at Panorama Private Hospital), but that researchers have had to compete with the main mandate of these scanners, which is one of clinical service provision. For instance a patient with cancer, who needs a scan to manage their disease, would (correctly) take precedence over a researcher wanting to use the facility. “There has until now not been much access for researchers. That will change with the establishment of the NII, which is intended purely for research, and plans to subsidise the costs of research scans. The combination of the world’s only truly digital PET-CT camera, combined with our radiopharmacy facilities and research expertise, presents researchers with a great opportunity to perform first-class research.”
Doruyter also highlighted the value of a dedicated radiopharmacist on his staff. “This means we can perform better quality checks on the radiopharmaceuticals we are injecting; that we can radiolabel more compounds; and that we can work on synthesising new radiopharmaceuticals, including tracers that specifically localise to TB. We will have one of the best-equipped radiopharmacies in Africa to perform such work.”
Doruyter explained that the NII is part of the Nuclear Medicine Research Initiative (NuMeRI), which falls under the South African Research Infrastructure Roadmap (SARIR). “The aim of SARIR is to establish high cost infrastructure to support research at the national (and international) level. Our mandate will be to ensure that this infrastructure is put to good use, for the benefit of researchers.” The NII is scheduled to become operational in November this year.