An acclaimed imaging scientist with an illustrious history at St. Joseph’s Health Care London, Dr. Frank Prato’s passion and drive are matched by his very own magnetism. For the past 36 years, the nuclear physicist has led the imaging program at Lawson Health Research Institute - his vision propelling it to become the largest and most successful biomedical imaging research programs in Canada. Currently Dr. Prato is Imaging Program Leader and Assistant Scientific Director at Lawson and Chief Medical Physicist at St. Joseph's Hospital. Below, a charismatic Dr. Prato, who is also a classically trained vocalist, looks back over his career and shares why he has remained loyal to London.
Q. When did you first become interested in science?
I have always had an interest in the medical sciences, even as a small boy. By the time I was 11 years old I was reading about genetics. However, the first images I remember looking at were in a shoe store when I was eight. In the 1950s when you went into a large shoe store you could try on a pair of shoes and stick your feed under an X-ray fluoroscopy unit and see how your feet fit in the shoes. Today, fluoroscopy is still done in the radiology departments, but it is strictly controlled as it can give a large radiation dose to the patient and the radiologist!
Q. What drew you to imaging research?
When I first enrolled in university I started in a pre-med general science type program and I had the opportunity to work in a nuclear physics lab as a summer student for 6 weeks. After my third year I was accepted into medicine, but after the first day of classes, I decided to drop out of medicine and complete a master's degree in nuclear physics instead. This is when I really had the opportunity to learn about the field. During my master's research I had the chance to stick a piece of whale bone into a particle accelerator. This was the first time I participated in a medical application of nuclear physics. We did this to find out what trace elements were in the whale bone without destroying the sample. This was back in 1971, and it would not be until 2002 and 2003 that I would use this application again to look for trace atoms of Gadolinium. Gadolinium is used as a contrast agent in MRI and normally clears from the body thought the kidneys. In this work we were checking to see if in fact it was properly cleared when used for a new application in MRI.
Q. What keeps you up at night?
Too many things keep me up at night! I push the envelope and that causes me some anxiety. For example, back in 1981 I convinced St. Joseph’s Hospital to purchase the first MRI in Canada. I promised that many people would benefit from the MRI – researchers, physicians and patients. Also, I had to judge that putting people into magnets would not harm them… When we imaged the first patient to look for a stroke I was worried that the small abnormality I saw on the image was not evidence of stroke, but rather equipment artifact. It was evidence of stroke, but it took time for me to gain complete confidence that this new imaging technology was working properly.
Q. What has been the most extraordinary moment in your career?
For me the most extraordinary moment is when you realize that you have discovered something that you know no one else in the world knows about…to know that your discovery explains something that has been a mystery. While doing my PhD I could not reconcile why my results on patient lung damage did not follow a natural progression - why more treatment with radiotherapy did not result in greater lung damage. Then one night I woke up from a dream with the answer. I realized the medical literature was wrong in describing the damage and in quantifying the amount of radiotherapy. My data made sense and could be used to reduce complications from radiation therapy.
Q. You could work anywhere in the world, what keeps you in London?
It takes a long time to go from simple experiments, like myself and others are doing around the world, to research that gets published and makes valuable contributions. You can achieve this in a number of ways. You can go to a center of international repute with the needed equipment, or you can create a targeted group around you. I originally came to St. Joseph’s Hospital from Toronto on a two-year contract agreement with Lionel Reese, who at the time was the director of Nuclear Medicine. Lionel was unorthodox in approach, but in reality way beyond his time in understanding the importance of research. He let me do whatever I wanted on the clinical imaging equipment when it was not needed for patients. So that is what I did - after hours and on weekends and on statutory holidays.
In 1981, when I convinced Lionel and other members of St. Joseph’s leadership to purchase Canada’s first MRI, Lionel put in about 20 per cent of the cost from the sale of some bonds he personally held. With his protection and support I was able to build the needed program. In addition, the nuns who ran St. Joseph’s Hospital were a great role model and very interested in making a difference. So I decided to stay. But Lionel died when he was my age - 66 years. So why did I stay after that? Well, Lionel's support was replaced by Lawson’s current scientific director, Dr. David Hill. As well, I had recently recruited back three of my former graduate students - Drs. Alex Thomas, Jeff Carson and Rob Stodilka - who are all still here today. We were starting to do some very important work.
Q. If not at Lawson, where would you be?
There is no better place to be for the kind of medical imaging I wish to do, and for the collaborations I need to accomplish what I believe is important. London may be the best site in Canada and one of the best in the world to do hybrid molecular imaging. Just recently we got the first images with our new full body PET/MRI machine on a patient and it worked as we "saw" something missed by the PET/CT procedure ….The applications for PET/MRI are limitless and I am excited to have the opportunity to identify what these applications are and which patients will benefit the most.