Dr. Conti is board certified in Nuclear Medicine specializing in diagnostic imaging applications in oncology. He is an expert in the clinical use of positron emission tomography (PET) in the diagnosis, staging and treatment monitoring of cancer. His research interests include the development of new radiolabeled imaging agents for use in the diagnosis of cancer and infectious disease and evaluation of the effects of gene therapy on tumors.
What initially attracted you to specialize in Radiology?
As an undergraduate sophomore at Johns Hopkins University, I had my first real experience working in a research laboratory of a prominent inorganic chemist, who also happened to be my medical school adviser. Perhaps atypical of most medical students, I really liked chemistry so I wanted to learn more about the subject from the research perspective. However, knowing full well that my intentions were to eventually attend medical school, he guided me to research projects that would provide a blend of both his chemistry world along with biomedical sciences. At the time, an opportunity existed to explore a relatively new field of imaging in nuclear medicine – the discovery and use of the radionuclide Technetium-99m – familiar to all clinicians now as a key component of bone scans, cardiac imaging and many other nuclear medicine procedures. I was fortunate to be at an institution on the cutting edge of development of this isotope for human application, and at the same time participate in chemistry research. This work was my introduction into the field of imaging and, by graduation, I expanded my interests into the possible uses of PET radioisotopes such as Carbon-11, Fluorine-18 and Nitrogen-13 in the preparation of biological active substances such as amino acids, sugars, fatty acids and nucleoside derivatives. I fell hook, line and sinker for the vital role that the tracer methodology, Nobel Prize-winning work by George De Hevesy, could play in medical imaging and the elucidation of disease processes such as cancer. Since Hopkins did not have a medical cyclotron at the time, I pursued this at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, eventually as part of my PhD in the joint MD-PhD program at Cornell University in New York City. There was little doubt in my mind that by the time I had completed my work there that I would pursue a career in Nuclear Medicine and Diagnostic Radiology, ultimately returning to Hopkins, which now had a cyclotron, for residency training.
As a clinician, what attracted you to also pursue research?
My research interests and career were largely shaped by the opportunities presented by my mentors along the way. I always will be indebted to their wisdom, guidance, and thoughtful and provocative discussions that helped me through the process. In addition to the individual mentors, the institutions were likewise critical. There is little doubt that I would have become interested in radiochemistry had I not been introduced to it at Hopkins, and likewise, my interest in cancer imaging was heavily influenced by my time spent at Memorial Sloan Kettering.
What do you think will be the next big advances in your field and what do you think the Keck School can do to position itself to be a leader in this area?
Over the years, the field of radiochemistry and biomedical imaging has undergone a tremendous evolution. Radiochemical syntheses that once were felt to be difficult or impossible have become routine, and sophisticated imaging devices, such as PET/CT and PET/MR, have become game-changers in diagnostics and patient management. Targeted patient-specific imaging is moving hand-in-hand with targeted patient-specific therapies, with development of companion diagnostics and imaging biomarkers playing key roles in current and future patient populations. The opportunities are remarkable for expanding collaborations and finding new applications for imaging in disease populations across the spectrum of disorders from cardiology to neurology, and diabetes to infectious diseases.
We are poised at USC to play a key role in this space for years to come with our new cyclotron and radiochemistry facility – a dream come true for me personally – but a tremendous opportunity for our research programs and, of course, our patients. Coupled with our procurement of the $3.1 million National Institutes of Health grant to obtain the new cyclotron, investment by the university, school, Cancer Center and Department of Radiology played key roles in the development of this facility, which will serve as a resource for our community for years to come.
What advice would you give to junior faculty about being competitive in getting grant funding?
The best advice I can give to junior faculty is not to try to go it alone. Your best chances of success are to pair up with a mentor(s) who already has a proven record, and who could provide the guidance and insight into the process of procuring funding and managing an active laboratory. Such wisdom and experience is invaluable – when faced with difficult decisions and challenges I frequently think back to what my mentors would have done in similar situations, or how they would approach and resolve problems.