Dr. Frank Wuest is a self-proclaimed science geek. He studied chemistry during both his undergraduate and master’s degree programs in his homeland of Germany, then pursued radiopharmaceutical sciences for his doctorate. After enjoying a one-and-a-half-year post-doc program in pharmaceutical sciences in St. Louis, Missouri, he was excited to return home to head up the Positron Emission Tomography (PET) Tracer Department at the Research Centre Dresden-Rossendorf in 2001. Life was good.
But it was about to change — radically. In 2008, Wuest became aware of an opportunity to move to Edmonton to take on the Dianne and Irving Kipnes Chair in Radiopharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Alberta (U of A) and the Cross Cancer Institute, funded by the Alberta Cancer Foundation. He couldn’t resist applying for the position — what could be better than leading a multidisciplinary team in designing and utilizing highly specialized nuclear imaging tools to enhance the diagnosis and treatment of cancers?
He got the job and, for the last 10 years, he and his crew of dedicated graduate students and other team members have been advancing the concept of personalized medicine at the molecular level.
“It is about finding the right treatment for the right person at the right time,” Wuest explains.
To do this, they design short-term radioactive atoms, which are then attached to molecules. These molecular probes bind to specific biomarkers for cancer. With the probes in place, and using PET imaging, these “metabolic spies” identify and track cancer cells to monitor tumour growth and progression and to assess the response to treatments. Lab work involves creating the labelling technology for the probes, testing their diagnostic and treatment-tracking potential and facilitating Health Canada approval for first-in-human studies.
This work is also called “translational cancer research” because it moves quickly from the lab to practical clinical applications, or from “bench to bedside.” Wuest says the time it takes to approve the clinical trial process using these radiopharmaceuticals — which are only applied in tracer doses with no pharmacological or toxicological effect — is rather short compared to traditional drugs (months versus years).
“Therefore, we can rapidly ‘translate’ our best findings and innovations into the clinic to enhance patient care,” he says.
For example, “an improved synthesis” of a radiotracer for imaging prostate-specific membrane antigen (PSMA) in prostate cancer — designed by Wuest and colleagues from Ontario and British Columbia — is now being used in several centres across Canada. And still in the queue for clinical trials is a fructose-based radiotracer that will be able to track a specific metabolic pathway in breast cancer.
Wuest’s hope is that finely tuned, targeted approaches like this will be advantageous for dealing with many cancers.
“Prostate cancer, for example, is one of the most over-diagnosed and over-treated cancers,” he says. “We would like to change that so that the only patients who receive treatment are those who are uniquely suited.”
When his lab work is finished for the day, Wuest continues to spread the word about the potential of nuclear diagnostics and treatment tracking by teaching science students at the U of A’s Department of Oncology. He has recently designed a course dealing with applications of new molecular imaging technologies.
Wuest is also a master collaborator. Not only does he work with other departments (chemistry and biology, for example) at the university, he also forges relationships with physicians, clinicians and oncologists under an umbrella group called the Cancer Research Institute of Northern Alberta (CRINA). In addition, he will soon be taking what he has learned in the lab on the road. Currently in development are portable kits containing small vials of his “secret sauce” chemical mix, which will be sent to other communities so that off-site practitioners can replicate the process and produce their own radiotracers.
As a result of his commitment, dedication and robust portfolio, Wuest is widely respected among his peers. His colleague and friend, Dr. Michael Weinfeld, is just one of his many admirers. “Frank’s innovative work on imaging, what is going on inside tumours and how they are responding to treatment, holds a lot of promise,” says Weinfeld. “Frank also has the ability to think outside the box and come up
with smart solutions to tricky problems. He’s an extremely valuable team player.”
As well as a modest one. “I could not do what I do by myself,” says Wuest. “I feel more like I am part of a rockstar band.”
Despite his overflowing work schedule, Wuest makes time for real-world experiences and highlights the importance of balance for any scientist. “I like having time to relax and recharge my batteries,” he says. “The brain needs a rest and some distance in order to get new ideas.”
Questions with Dr. Wuest
Describe what you do in 10 words or less.
I visualize cancer biology to improve patient care.
What’s the biggest misperception about what you do?
That I can treat or even cure cancer with our molecular probes. My team and I use the probes for earlier detection and to support the decision-making progress to select the best therapy for the patient. Both early detection and personalized treatment will ultimately improve patient outcome.
Where do you get your best ideas?
From gossiping with colleagues, friends and students, especially during social events or scientific meetings.
If you weren’t a medical oncologist and researcher, what would you be?
I always wanted to become an actor. I used to perform in theatre at school and enjoyed performing.
What is the hardest lesson you’ve learned?
Sometimes your best effort is just not enough. But never give up.
What motivates you?
Working with students; I like their curiosity and their hunger for new knowledge. And working in a cancer hospital where you see, every day, the importance of your work.
Why does your research matter?
Only what we can “see” can be treated. My research helps to develop better tools for earlier and more sensitive detection of cancer. The better we can “see,” the better we can treat and help patients.