Baton Rouge imaging collaboration strives to combat obesity and improve cancer treatment

Released: Monday, June 05, 2017

In a state with the highest obesity rate in the nation - 36 percent - researchers in Louisiana are pushing to find new and better ways to combat this chronic disease. The battle against such a prevalent health problem is no small task. It requires scientists to uncover countless mysteries which still surround how and why our bodies work the way they do before they can begin to develop targeted therapies aimed at preventing and treating obesity.

One mystery under hot pursuit among chronic disease researchers revolves around brown fat. Unlike the more common white fat, brown fat helps to generate body heat and is thought to be beneficial because of its ability to burn more calories than white fat.

Despite the abundance of brown fat research underway around the world, what remains a mystery is how to get humans to make their white fat burn more calories like brown fat. This is partially because scientists are still learning key details about brown fat - like where it's situated within our bodies.

"Right now, it's hard to tell where brown fat is located within the body and how active it is. We know it can be found around the neck and chest, but we don't know as much about it as we do about the white fat because we haven't been able to see it very well using routine medical tests," said Dr. Owen Carmichael, director of biomedical imaging at LSU's Pennington Biomedical Research Center.

"With a regular MRI, it is difficult to see where the brown fat is or its activity very well," Carmichael said. "PET scanning is currently used to look at brown fat, but it has some limitations, such as limited spatial resolution."

Solving this conundrum requires a team with a great idea. Budding researcher Krystal Kirby is a graduate student in LSU and Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center's Medical Physics program. Together with Carmichael and her medical physics mentor, Dr. Kenneth Matthews at LSU, she is aiming to develop a new technique that could provide the soft tissue contrast that obesity scientists need to better understand brown fat. The concept for this new MRI technique occurred to Kirby while taking a graduate course on mathematical physics at LSU. Now, Kirby and Carmichael have received funding from LSU in the form of an Economic Development Assistantship award to pursue their idea.

Krystal Kirby

Working together with their collaborators at LSU, Kirby and Carmichael plan to further develop quantum coherence imaging to better delineate the boundaries between brown fat and other soft tissues.

Quantum coherence imaging shows how two atoms interact with one another when they are excited by radio frequency energy. In short, pairs of atoms in different types of tissues interact differently, making the contrast between those tissues quite sharp.  Although the imaging process was developed in the 1990s, quantum coherence imaging has not yet been further adapted to detect brown fat in humans.

"Quantum coherence imaging hasn't been used in a clinical setting before because it takes too long, but we are hoping to cut down on the time it takes to utilize this process and to make existing technology better," Kirby said.

Ultimately, quantum coherence imaging could be developed to support people who struggle to lose weight.

"Maybe people who don't do well with weight loss may have fat that burns especially few calories," Carmichael said. "If we can develop new technology to understand brown fat better, we may be able to promote more of the fat to burn more calories, like the brown fat does. This could lead to weight loss, less chronic disease, and longer lives."

A bonus of this collaboration? The same imaging technique under development to battle obesity could also be used one day to help diagnose cancer.

Existing medical imaging techniques can tell us where a tumor is located, but the edges are not always exactly clear, according to Matthews. 

"Because the boundaries are unclear, to treat the cancer with radiation you often have to irradiate outside the tumor itself because you want to make sure that you kill all the cancer cells. The downside is that healthy tissue can be impacted in eradicating all of the tumor cells," Matthews said.

After the team develops the quantum coherence imaging technology, they hope to be able to better distinguish which cells on the periphery of a tumor are healthy and which cells are cancerous. One day, this imaging technique could be used in conjunction with CT and PET scans to guide radiation treatment, surgery planning, and treatment assessment.

"Imaging in cancer is currently dominated by radiation techniques such as PET and CT.  But here at Pennington Biomedical, we are developing MRI technology that has promise to eventually be integrated into therapy," Carmichael said.

"The smaller the tumor is, the harder it is to position the person for the right image-guided radiotherapy," Kirby said. "But we could use this new technology, along with MRI-guided radiotherapy, to deliver radiation even to the most precise of points in the body while sparing other tissues from excessive radiation."

According to Wayne Newhauser, director of the medical physics program at LSU, this type of collaborative research is only possible in a few places.

"It is hard to top the combined expertise of LSU's science faculty, Pennington Biomedical's researchers, and Mary Bird Perkins' clinician colleagues. This collaborative approach propels our research and education forward in a way that would otherwise be impossible," he said.

Dr. Kenneth Matthews

For example, Dr. Matthews, an associate professor of medical physics, is Louisiana's only doctorate-level board certified nuclear medicine physicist.

When choosing a graduate program, the collaborative research opportunities available to her in Baton Rouge lured Kirby to Louisiana.

"I applied and was accepted to other top universities within the research triangle in the Northeast for my Ph.D., and I turned them down. I opted to attend LSU's Medical Physics program because its faculty, academics, and facilities are top-notch. In addition, I have the opportunity to work with Dr. Carmichael at Pennington Biomedical, which is world-renowned." Kirby said. 

Plus, LSU's partnership with Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center provides me with hands-on physics training on some of the most cutting-edge equipment in the world - far more than the single semester clinical rotation I might have access to elsewhere."

One example of leading-edge technology is Mary Bird Perkins – Our Lady of the Lake Cancer Center's Gamma Knife Icon, a revolutionary noninvasive radiosurgery treatment for brain tumors. It's the only system of its kind in the Gulf South and provides ultrahigh precision to treat virtually any cancerous or non-cancerous brain tumor as well as central nervous system disorders. As an LSU Medical Physics student, Kirby is able to receive hands-on training with the Gamma Knife Icon and other technologies at the Cancer Center.

Detecting types of fat, how they work, and uncovering the boundaries of cancerous tumors are just the beginning. The technology that Kirby, Carmichael, and Matthews are collaborating on could one day be further developed for use in other chronic conditions.

"The fact that we have these world-class resources in place coming together in Baton Rouge is truly unique," Carmichael said.

The state-of-the-art facilities and resources used for this exploration provide substantial value to citizens of the Greater Baton Rouge area who have access to renowned researchers and technology in their own backyard. Having these resources at their fingertips also helps this team of researchers collaborate to move science forward quicker and more efficiently, ultimately improving quality and length of life for people in Louisiana and around the world.

LSU's Pennington Biomedical Research Center is a nutrition and chronic disease research facility that is putting science to work for a healthier Louisiana, country and global community. Its scientific discoveries have helped change the way America eats, exercises and ages. To participate in research at Pennington Biomedical, visit

The Medical Physics and Health Physics Program at LSU provides graduate education, training and research in radiation technology with applications in health care as well as in environmental and industrial radiation protection. To learn more about this program contact

The Mary Bird Perkins – LSU Medical Physics Partnership provides for a multi-layered joint academic and research program between the two organizations.  Created in the 1980's, the partnership leverages the educational and research resources of LSU and the cancer expertise of Mary Bird Perkins to benefit patients receiving cancer care in southeast Louisiana and beyond.

 Mary Bird Perkins – Our Lady of the Lake Cancer Center is a regional destination for cancer care which offers the most advanced technology and services provided by a dedicated team of nationally-recognized oncology experts. The Cancer Center provides best-practice, comprehensive care at every stage of the cancer journey, including disease site-specific multidisciplinary care teams, a robust clinical research program, extensive supportive care services and is the only facility in the Gulf South with the revolutionary Leksell Gamma Knife®Icon™. As a nonprofit organization, donor generosity is essential to sustaining the mission of improving survivorship and lessening the burden of cancer for so many throughout Southeast Louisiana and beyond. For more information on the Cancer Center, and how you can become involved, please visit

For more information on how you can support this and other projects at LSU’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center, visit