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Justin W. Hicks, PhD

Principle Investigator

I am a research scientist focusing on radiochemistry applications to improve access to leading edge molecular imaging tools to investigate pressing biomedical questions. I am a new investigator forming a stellar team of undergrads, graduate students, and post-docs who will develop or use their exceptional skills in bioorganic and radiochemistry. My education background includes a MSc in Tc-99m chemistry with John Valliant at McMaster University (2010) and a PhD with Alan Wilson and Neil Vasdev at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health/University of Toronto (2015) on PET tracer development for CNS enzymes. After 2015, I joined the Lawson cyclotron as a radiochemist to translate clinical PERS. After my first year, I was appointed as a Lawson Scientist and Assistant Professor at Western University in the department of Medical Biophysics. My research interest spans from basic radiochemistry method development to discovering new imaging agents. We dabble in DIY automation and are constantly improving our radiopharmaceutical production processes. Recently we've started exploring ways to improve access by rural communities to these unrivaled imaging methods.

Postdoctoral Fellows

Keller George, PhD (in collaboration with Dr. Michael S. Kovacs) 2019 - 2022

Dr. George joined in 2019 with an engineering background. She's applied her expertise to perfecting the production of Ga-68 on a solid target system (>1.4 GBq/μAh). Currently we are validating cyclotron produced Ga-68 as an alternative to generator sources.

Graduate Students

Current Students

Olujide (Stephen) Oyeniran - MSc Candidate in Medical Biophysics - Joined Jan 2022

Project: Optimizing [11C]butanol radiosynthesis and PET image analysis for assessing blood-brain barrier integrity in Alzheimer's Disease

[11C]butanol is the gold standard for accurate assessment of the blood-brain barrier (BBB) integrity in Alzheimer's disease (AD). Alteration in the integrity of the BBB has been identified as one of the earliest pathological processes in AD. The best available method for the synthesis of [11C]butanol is cumbersome and requires formulation in ethanol (confounds imaging). Therefore, I am currently working on optimizing [11C]butanol radiosynthesis for the assessment of the BBB integrity and validate the method for routine production. This radiotracer, in combination with [15O]water will then be used in a hybrid PET/MR investigation to non-invasively detect alterations to brain permeability.

Fun Facts:

I am from Nigeria. When not studying or in the lab, I enjoy soccer, multimedia productions, and trying new things.

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Ghazaleh Takalloobanafshi - PhD Candidate in Chemistry - Joined Jan 2022

ProjectIntegrating Tc-99m into small molecules for imaging neurological targets with more accessible SPECT

Detecting pathological protein targets (i.e. amyloid plaques, neurofibrillary tangles, inflammation) in human brains is important to improve our understanding, better diagnose, and eventually treat brain diseases. This has been addressed by a medical imaging technique called PET. Because of high operating cost of PET, a second more accessible and cheaper technique, SPECT can be used. Both methods rely on radiotracers (drug-like molecules) with several approved for PET but few for SPECT. In this work, we will address this shortcoming to improve access to brain imaging by synthesizing highly accessible SPECT tracers labeled with the most used radionuclide in medical imaging, Tc-99m. We will first target amyloid, tau, and TSPO; protein often used to study dementia.

Fun Facts:

My home is Iran, a mountainous, arid, and ethnically diverse country of southwestern Asia. In my spare time I usually do puzzles, play violin and try new recipes.

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Undergraduate Students

Current Students

John Diemert (MBP4970 Project 2022-23 and NSERC USRA 2023)

Project: Solid-supported production of fluorine-18 tetrafluoroborate for cell tracking positron emission tomography

My project looks to create a new and improved method to synthesize Fluorine-18 labelled Tetrafluoroborate and to automate it onto a remote controlled synthesizer. The goal is to make this radiotracer more reproducible for clinics and research facilities to reliably use.

Fun Facts:

I grew up on a farm in Bruce Country, near Walkerton ON. In my spare time, I like to read (usually the fantasy genre) as well as hike or ski. 

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Past Students

Clara Duquette-Evans (MBP3970 Project - 2022-23)

Project: Evaluating binding affinity of novel Tc-99m radiotracer candidates to amyloid aggregates in vitro and ex vivo 

My project assists with Ghazaleh's radiotracer development. We are using radiometric and fluorometric measurements of protein binding to determine which candidates are best suited for in vivo evaluation as SPECT radiotracers for Alzheimer's disease.

Aditi Kukreja (MBP4970 Project - 2020-21)

Aditi performed a systematic literature review for her 4th year thesis. The topic was Tc-99m based radioligands targeting beta-amyloid aggregates and a why a successful SPECT radiotracer for this area would improve access to dementia imaging in rural communities.

Alexander Gillies (CHEM4491 Project - 2019-20)

4th year thesis - Fatty Acid Binding Protein 3 radioligand development

Farah Kamar (MBP3970 Project - 2019-20)

3rd year lab placement - automated N-13 ammonia purification

Kichi Choi (MBP3970 Project - 2019-20)

3rd year lab placement - BBB penetration predicted by TLC

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