Molecular Imaging agents for Prostate Cancer Theranostics

This program is focused on the development of theranostic agents, which will uncover aspects of the tumor microenvironment (TME) while leveraging the TME to treat cancers using photodynamic therapy. Down-regulation of checkpoints will occur through targeted (PSMA) delivery of nucleic acids and prodrug enzymes.

Specific Aims
  • Develop a rapidly translatable molecular imaging probe to image focal adhesion kinase (FAK) expression in prostate cancer

  • Develop theranostic reagents to perform phototherapy of CAFs

  • Synthesize PSMA targeted nanoparticles that deliver siRNA and the prodrug enzyme bacterial cytosine deaminase (bCD)


Prostate cancer (PCa) is the second leading cause of death from cancer in men in the U.S. The vast majority of men dying of PCa continue to succumb to metastatic castration-resistant disease. There is a compelling need to find effective treatments for metastatic PCa.

Our purpose in TR&D1 of the Precision Medicine Resource Center is to successfully develop prototype theranostic molecular imaging platforms to pursue novel avenues of (i) detecting and targeting the focal adhesion kinase (FAK) mechanotransduction pathway that allow cells to migrate (Aims 1a and b), (ii) detecting and eliminating activated cancer associated fibroblasts (CAFs) that play an important role in the formation of a prometastatic extracellular matrix (ECM) in PCa (Aim 2), and (iii) developing prostate specific antigen (PSMA)-targeted nanoparticles (NPs) to deliver siRNA to downregulate programmed death ligand 1 (PD-L1) together with a prodrug enzyme, to exploit the activation of the immune system, together with localized cell killing, in locally advanced and metastatic PCa (Aim 3). Optical and PET imaging reporters will be integrated into the platforms to achieve spatial and temporal visualization of the NPs in vivo for precision medicine. PSMA, a type II integral membrane protein that is abundantly expressed on the surface of PCa in castration-resistant, advanced and metastatic disease, provides a unique advantage to deliver PSMA-specific NPs for effective control and treatment of locally advanced or metastatic PCa.

These studies will result in the accelerated development of FAK PET imaging probes with near term clinical translation that will have a direct impact on the selection of patients for ongoing FAK inhibitor treatment trials. Mechanical movement of cancer cells is a prerequisite for invasion and metastasis. NPs that achieve PCa-specific downregulation of FAK using PSMA-specific delivery will provide cancer-specific downregulation of cell migration, a key step in the metastatic cascade. Similarly, detection of CAFs in tumors with imaging will provide a distinct advantage over biopsy specimens in evaluating CAF numbers as a marker of aggressiveness. CAF elimination with phototherapy may provide a strategy to reduce or eliminate PCa metastasis. The development of NPs to improve immunotherapy in PCa through theranostics and their translation will represent a significant advance in this field since PCa has traditionally not responded well to immunotherapy. TR&D1 will also serve as the Pre-Clinical Validation Core that will, through close interactions with the CPs and other TR&Ds, develop and disseminate novel molecular imaging theranostic agents that will advance precision medicine of cancer worldwide.


Zaver M. Bhujwalla M.Sc., Ph.D


Professor of Radiology and Radiological Science


Dmitri Artemov



Professor of Radiology and Radiological Science


Acid-degradable Dextran as an Image Guided siRNA Carrier for COX-2 Downregulation

Chen Z, Krishnamachary B, Penet MF, Bhujwalla ZM.

Theranostics 2018