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Scientist in the Spotlight: Henk De Feyter

Henk DeFeyterAn AICR-funded researcher, Henk De Feyter, PhD, Associate Research Scientist at Yale University School of Medicine, focuses his research on cancer metabolism. Using a novel imaging technique called magnetic resonance (MR) spectroscopy, DeFeyter’s studies are shedding light on how metabolic changes and diet link to brain tumors.

Q: Can you explain MR spectroscopy?

A: Magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) uses the same machine as magnetic resonance imaging, MRI. From a subject’s perspective the experience of going for an MRI scan versus an MRS scan is indistinguishable. Instead of reconstructing the signal of water molecules to get pictures out of it, MRS makes a spectrum from the signal of molecules other than water.

A spectrum is a sort of graph with a bunch of peaks. Those peaks represent various molecules and they scale with the concentration of their molecules: if more of a molecule is present, than the peak is larger.

Q: How are you using this in your research?

A: MR spectrometry has several applications related to metabolism. We have developed MR methods to study the normal metabolism in the brain, skeletal muscle and liver. We are now moving toward studying brain tumors.

In cancer, there are often altered metabolic pathways and/or metabolites and we can detect this with MR spectrometry. One can now also use MR spectrometry to look for specific genetic changes in brain tumors that are related to cancer.

Q: You’re using this technique for your AICR-funded study looking at brain cancer and the ketogenic diet (a high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet), correct?

A: Yes. I’m looking at dietary manipulation and brain metabolism. The idea has been around that we may be able to use diet to treat brain tumors. We are particularly interested in how a ketogenic diet may impact brain tumor development by exploiting the tumor’s inability to metabolize ketone bodies. We’re using MR spectroscopy to detect metabolism of ketone bodies in brain tumors.

Q: Can you explain what a ketone body is?

A: Ketone bodies are an energy source derived from fat. Our body produces ketone bodies in times of fasting. While the brain is usually a huge consumer of glucose – sugar – during times of fasting the brain can perfectly metabolize ketone bodies as well. The rationale for using the ketogenic diet is that brain tumors, in contrast to the healthy brain, would not be able to metabolize ketone bodies. One could “starve” the brain tumor while preserving the healthy brain’s energy.

Q: What are some future applications for MR spectrometry?

A: If we can manage to transfer what we have learned about the healthy brain to brain tumors, it would be an amazing step. I hope we can apply MR spectroscopy to study brain tumor metabolism in human.… Especially for cancer research and diagnostics, this new application has a lot of potential.

Excerpted from ScienceNow.

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