Blaney’s vision for SAIF helps advance research from bench to bedside

7115smallanimal640We’ve all heard the saying, “Hard work pays off.”

That old adage certainly rings true for Dr. Susan Blaney, deputy director of Texas Children’s Cancer Center and executive vice chair of Research for Baylor College of Medicine Department of Pediatrics.

While advancing pediatric cancer research remains one of her top priorities, Blaney has worked passionately to ensure researchers have the tools to advance their scientific investigations – all in the hopes of putting more childhood diseases on the curable or preventable list.

Seven years ago, Blaney garnered the support of the hospital’s section chiefs and the Chair of Department of Pediatrics, the late Dr. Ralph D. Feigin, who approved her proposal to establish the Small Animal Imaging Facility (SAIF). Blaney credits the SAIF as an important contribution to the success of translational research efforts at Texas Children’s Hospital.

“Small animal models of disease, particularly genetically engineered mice and mouse models of human tumors, are powerful tools in medical research,” Blaney said. “New, non-invasive in vivo methods for imaging small animals have greatly enhanced our ability to explore the pathological processes of human disease at the molecular and genomic levels.”

As the primary users of the SAIF, Texas Children’s and Baylor researchers rely on the facility’s resources to obtain preliminary data for grant proposals, with the goal of publishing their groundbreaking research in premier scientific journals and ultimately to improve the outcome for disease of childhood.

While there are multiple animal imaging facilities throughout the Texas Medical Center, many outside researchers use our facility to launch their pilot projects in collaboration with Texas Children’s faculty. These include principal investigators from the Texas Heart Institute, Rice University, the University of Texas Medical School at Houston, MD Anderson Cancer Center, the University of Houston, Houston Methodist Hospital and the University of Tennessee.

Co-directed by Drs. Robia G. Pautler and M. Waleed Gaber under the guidance of Blaney and Dr. Jordan Orange, vice chair of Research for Baylor’s Department of Pediatrics, the SAIF provides a comprehensive suite of state-of-the-art, high-resolution imaging equipment including:

  • magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and spectroscopy
  • ultrasound
  • optical imaging (including bioluminescence and fluorescence)
  • computed topography
  • positron emission tomography
  • bone densitometer
  • pathological imaging (Leica microscope)
  • digital autoradiography system
  • single photon emission computed tomography

“We can uncover all sorts of amazing findings in human disease processes using multiple in vivo imaging modalities,” Pautler said. “We can measure fibrosis in the heart, track cellular and genetic activity in real-time, create blood flow maps to understand tumor growth and trace neural pathways in live animal models to detect early signs of neurodegenerative disorders.”

To enhance the power of translational research, the SAIF also helps investigators conduct longitudinal studies in the same live animal to observe different stages of disease progression and analyze what happens when potential therapeutic or diagnostic interventions are introduced.

In May, the SAIF hosted its first imaging symposium highlighting compelling research findings that would not have been possible without the support of Texas Children’s small animal imaging technologies. With approximately 100 attendees, the symposium also provided a forum to create new research ideas and initiate new collaborations with other investigators that will lead to higher levels of innovative research.

7115smallanimalinsideR640Without question, Blaney’s hard work has certainly paid off. With her vision fulfilled for the SAIF, the research vision of others has been enabled.

For example, a Texas Children’s principal investigator – who used MRI data from the SAIF to help drive his National Institutes of Health R01 grant application – recently received a score that ranked in the top one percent. Additionally, a junior Texas Children’s principal investigator who used imaging data from the SAIF in a grant application was recently awarded his very first foundation grant that will help launch his career.

“Researchers are starting to really appreciate the outstanding services provided to them through the SAIF,” Blaney said. “We are making incredible advances in research that will undoubtedly lead to novel treatments for our patients.”