Kabalka building better molecules for better medicine

After the name on his business card, George Kabalka’s title could be professor, researcher, innovator, distinguished chair holder, outstanding teacher, PhD, among others.

“Professor,” he says. “I enjoy teaching and creating new science, so professor works just fine.” And under that broad umbrella, all of the above mentioned titles fit.

The youthful looking Kabalka has been at the University of Tennessee for more than four decades. For nearly the last 30 of them, he has held what some would consider two full-time positions at UT.

In the mornings, he’s a researcher, innovator, director of radiology research, and Robert Cole Professor of Neuroscience in the Department of Radiology in the Graduate School of Medicine at the UT Medical Center. There he collaborates with other researchers to develop radiopharmaceuticals that one day may let physicians peer more deeply and accurately, via imaging and scanning devices, into illness such as Alzheimer’s, cancer, and Parkinson’s disease.

After lunch, Kabalka is on “the Hill” teaching organic chemistry and mentoring graduate students as a UT Alumni Distinguish Service Professor in the Chemistry Department. His research has been continuously funded since 1973 and has brought more than $12 million in grants and contracts to the university.

At the Medical Center, Kabalka’s tiny office, which he’s occupied since choosing it 1984 and which retains its 1950-ish, institutional look, belies the large, high technology laboratory that surrounds it. “I chose this office because I thought at the time, ‘nobody else would ever want to it’ and besides I have no need for a bigger one,” he said.

That’s due mostly to the little time he spends there, preferring to be working on medical imaging agents for use in PET (positron emission tomography) and other scanners. In these diagnostic procedures, short-lived, radioisotopes are attached to molecules that, when injected, travel to a tumor, diseased area, or organ.

The scanner “reads” the emissions from the isotope, providing the physician information about the area of interest. The challenge, Kabalka says, is to create agents that provide accurate data that leads to better diagnoses and patient care.

Like the development of other medicines, receiving approval for a new radiopharmaceutical doesn’t happen overnight. Far from it.

“It’s a very slow process. It takes 10 to 15 years to know if you have a success,” he said. “One of the compounds we developed in the late 1980s is still being studied as a potential pharmaceutical – not here but at places like Massachusetts General Hospital. They’re tweaking this drug, and we are tweaking other people’s work with our experimental models, hoping to get them approved for human use.”

His work has yielded seven patents and he’s published more than 600 articles in technical and academic journals. He has represented the University by giving lectures throughout the world.

The chemical element boron is the subject of more than half of his research articles. During his graduate student days at Purdue University, Kabalka was part of a boron research team that to date has won three Nobel Prizes for its work. In his experimental compounds, boron is the “saddle’ on which the radioisotope rides within the molecule.

Unlike the early days, when Kabalka and his team had to actually produce on-site the approved radiopharmaceutical agents physicians needed for their PET scans, those are now done by a commercial company, allowing him to focus on research. PETNET Solutions of Knoxville, a subsidiary of Siemens Corp., produces the clinical agents as well as the radioisotopes Kabalka uses in this research.

Before the commercial companies were established, did he ever consider spinning his work out of the laboratory and into the market place?

“No, my interests are academic – teaching and research. “Besides,” saying as he laughs, “none of my patents have brought in any money yet since they have to do with the basic composition of matter.”

Understanding that composition and the testing of his molecules took a giant step forward in the 1980s when the Medical Center acquired a state-of-the-art PET scanner from a then small but rapidly growing West Knoxville company called CTI Molecular Imaging Inc.

“That was huge. To have access to that scanner was a major milestone in our research and in advancing the frontiers of medicine, just like the TV spots say,” he said. “That’s what an academic medical center does. The bottom line for everybody here is providing better patient care.”

UT and the Medical Center have maintained close ties with CTI and Siemens Corp., which acquired the Knoxville start up for $1 billion in 2005.

Should you think after all these years as a research professor that retirement might be in Kabalka’s immediate future, you’d be wrong. He says it isn’t in the immediate future.

He’ll proudly show you the watch the University presented him on his 40th anniversary at UT, and after spending just a few minutes with him, you get the impression there are many more anniversaries ahead.

And, people like George Kabalka never really retire and stop pursuing their academic interests. They just add another title – professor emeritus.

 

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