Nominees say she’s one of the world’s leading radiochemists
Debbie Cutler

When MU’s Carolyn J. Anderson isn’t watching films at the Ragtag, bike riding around Columbia’s trail systems, or practicing yoga – she’s busy at work in the Department of Chemistry and as director of the Molecular Imaging and Theranostics Center on Research Park Drive teaching and doing research on radiopharmaceutical chemistry.

And that hard work has paid off.

Anderson recently won the 2022 Glenn T. Seaborg Award for Nuclear Chemistry, a nationwide honor that comes with high esteem and recognition among her peers. The award was given at a ceremony in San Diego on March 22 by the ACS Division of Nuclear Chemistry and Technology.

“Simply put, Professor Anderson is one of the world’s leading radiochemists, renowned nationally and internationally for her work in the development of metal-based radiopharmaceuticals,” says nominator Jason S. Lewis, Emily Tow Jackson chair in oncology at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. “She has a vision and an imagination that has led to her becoming a leader in our field, providing an exciting direction for its future.”

Nominator Robert H. Mach, Britton Chance professor of radiology and director of radio chemistry at Penn Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, agrees. “I believe her scientific accomplishments over the past 25 years clearly indicate that she is a worthy recipient of this award. Her basic science research has had a tremendous impact on society by ushering in the field of Theranostics, an important area of biomedical research.”

(Note: Theranostics is the term used to describe the combination of using one radioactive drug to identify (diagnose) and a second radioactive drug to deliver therapy to treat the main tumor and any metastatic tumors – for example in cancer patients.)

Meeting Memories

“I was very shocked to receive this award,” says Anderson. “I met Glenn Seaborg when I was an undergrad in the first DOE/ACS sponsored Nuclear Chemistry Summer School program in 1984. He was a Nobel Laureate and was a co-discoverer of the elements plutonium and neptunium, as well as technetium-99 and iodine-131, which are used in nuclear medicine every day.

“He was just an amazing human being, a kind person, and a brilliant scientist. He served as a science advisor under presidents from Eisenhower through Reagan. He has an element named after him: Seaborgium. To be able to get an award named after him means the world to me.”

Twist of Change

Anderson, who received her Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Wisconsin-Superior and her PhD at Florida State University, got into chemistry after starting her bachelor’s degree in a program at UW-Superior to become a medical technologist.

“I realized after they took us to a couple different hospitals and showed us what we were going to do, that medical technology was not a good fit for me,” she says. “So, a chemistry professor said, ‘you should be a chemistry major because that’s where all the action is.’ I remember those exact words. I had to take additional courses to change majors, but I have no regrets. I’m never bored. It’s such a diverse field and I get to work with people in many disciplines. I’m always learning something new.”

It was a far cry from her childhood aspirations of being a social worker, but her success in radiochemistry has paid off in a major way. Her lab produces radiopharmaceuticals, which are radioactive drugs that can, depending on the radionuclide (a distinct kind of atom or nucleus characterized by a specific number of protons and neutrons), be used for nuclear medicine imaging or radiopharmaceutical therapy, Anderson says.

“So, we are looking for disease, or treating disease,” she says. One of my goals is to complete the circle of developing an agent from chemistry to first-in human studies (the process of applying to the FDA for an investigational new drug (IND) application followed by testing in a small group of normal volunteers and/or patients). The process of moving through all the stages of a new radiopharmaceutical agent is rewarding. Our overall goal is to improve human health.”

The Student/Patient Touch

Anderson says she enjoys working with trainees – undergraduates, graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows – in the lab. “MU has very talented students who are super smart. But I also love that I get to work with a diverse group of people with different backgrounds than mine. I’ve met and collaborated with people in other departments in Arts & Sciences, in the medical school, and the College of Veterinary Medicine. I get to work with clinicians directly and on rare occasions have patient interactions.”

As an example, she cites a project she’s working on currently with clinician scientists at the University of Pittsburgh. As part of their efforts, she met a patient who volunteered for a study involving PET imaging of vaso-occlusive crisis that occurs as a result of sickle cell disease. The young woman in her 20s volunteered, not because the study would help her specifically, but to gain information for finding new ways to determine severity of disease in patients like her down the road.

“I’ve been working with this group of scientists and clinicians since 2015, and we just received the notice of award for a NIH (National Institute of Health) R01 grant to do a larger-scale clinical trial.”

Pro MU All the Way

Anderson has been at Mizzou since 2020. “I could see the commitment the university was making in this area of research, and I wanted to be a part of it,” she says. “The effort has grown a lot even since I’ve been here. We now have the Molecular Imaging Theranostics Center as of July 2021.”

Anderson says she couldn’t be happier being at the University of Missouri. “The university is the center of the country,” she says. “And I think we can be the center of Theranostics and Molecular Imaging. There’s so much that goes on here, and I don’t think the community really recognizes or fully appreciates what we do here.”

And as for the black-tie dinner and walking across the stage to get her award – Anderson says all that is good, but the true joy was being with so many of her colleagues in person for the first time in more than two years.

“This was the first conference I attended since the pandemic started,” she says. “And to be able to be with people who I’ve worked with throughout the last 30 years was really amazing. It’s a huge honor and very humbling.”