PET pioneer meets life
Troubled childhood precedes career that
exemplifies limitless possibilities of science
By James Brice
Anyone who has lived a distinguished life can remember people who inspired
them to do great things. This has certainly been the case with Michael E.
Phelps, Ph.D., chair of molecular and medical pharmacology at the University
of California, Los Angeles.
With the guidance of a neighbor, Phelps overcame a troubled childhood to
develop a philosophy of life that led to the invention of the first PET scanner.
The feat would forever associate him with Sir Godfrey Hounsfield, Paul
Lauterbur, and other giants of medical imaging and would lead to the nation's
two highest scientific honors: an Enrico Fermi Award and an appointment to the
National Academy of Science.
But Phelps did not reach the pinnacle of his career with just a single great
invention. His star continued to rise with help from the second great influence
in his life, industrialist Norton Simon. After a calculated move into academic
department management, Phelps merged UCLA's nuclear medical and pharmacology
departments. The resulting department of molecular and medical pharmacology
became a world-class center for drug and imaging research.
Although blessed with an extraordinary intellect, Phelps needed help to deal
with a disadvantaged childhood. His story begins in Port Orchard, WA, where his
family moved from Cleveland nine months after his birth on Aug. 24, 1939. Life
was a struggle for Earl and Regina Phelps and their eight children. The
debilitating consequences of a broken back suffered in the U.S. Navy kept Earl
from hard labor, so the family subsisted on his earnings from small engine
When Michael was nine, a fire swept through the Phelps home, making a hard
life even harder. Two brothers died, and his mother was badly burned. In the
aftermath, Phelps moved in with Ira Goldberg, a neighbor who recognized that
boxing might help Michael vent the anger over his family's misfortunes. Through
boxing, Phelps also learned the value of training and fighting. Training proved
essential for developing new skills, and fighting showed him how to stand and
Another misfortune--this time a car crash when Phelps was 19--put an end to
his plans for a boxing career. Although Goldberg's lessons could no longer be
applied in a ring, Phelps remembered them as he pursued undergraduate studies at
Washington State University in Bellingham. He gravitated to mathematics and
chemistry because classmates shied away from these difficult subjects. He earned
good grades by training harder than everyone around him.
Phelps's fighting ways carried over to graduate work in chemistry at
Washington University in St. Louis and his first faculty position at the medical
school there, where he was assigned to Dr. Michel Ter-Pogossian in 1971. Phelps
and postgrad student Dr. Edward Hoffman developed instruments to measure the
kinetics of brain tissue subjects who had been administered positron-labeled
compounds. Ter-Pogossian had worked with single-detector instruments. Hoffman
and Phelps took the concept to the next level by designing a machine that used
up to 26 detectors.
Then, in 1973, he learned about Hounsfield's breakthroughs with CT. Applying
Hounsfield's algorithms to positron emission was a matter of understanding the
math and reconfiguring the detectors to sample data in linear and angular ways.
Phelps's first PET camera was completed in January 1974, and the first
whole-body system for human and animal studies was finished in December of that
The first commercial system, also designed by Phelps, was delivered to UCLA
in December 1976. UCLA medical dean Dr. Sherman Mellinkoff made sure that Phelps
would follow by offering him a full professorship, a cyclotron, a laboratory,
and the resources to build a world-class PET program.
New friendships came with the new territory, notably with industrialist
Norton Simon, a member of the UC Board of Regents. Simon was an organizational
genius who built a multinational corporation that included Hunt-Wesson foods,
McCall's publishing, Max Factor cosmetics, Avis car rentals, and Canada Dry
Through Simon, Phelps learned that fighting and training could take him only
so far. Diplomacy, leadership, and an appreciation of life cycles were also
necessary if he was to realize his dream of building a first-class research
organization. Phelps learned through Simon that careers have a natural rhythm.
Success comes at the end of productive phases, so maintaining momentum requires
looking to the next cycle to ride that curve upward while the current cycle is
in its decline.
Powerful political friends, such as Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK) also helped.
Stevens sponsored federal reforms that eliminated longstanding obstacles to the
widespread adoption of clinical PET. By the end of the 1990s, healthcare
administrators were lining up to buy Phelps's invention.
Another turning point came in 1992 with the merger of UCLA's financially
troubled pharmacology department and a nuclear medicine department whose
fortunes were tied to PET. The merger worked miracles. The renamed Laboratory of
Structural Biology and Molecular Medicine now boasts $22 million in grants and
42 faculty members including two Nobel laureates--all under Phelps's direction.
Ultimately, the combined operations managed by Phelps at UCLA would support a
staff of 500 and a budget of more than $50 million.
In 1999, Phelps received the Enrico Fermi Presidential Award and was elected
to the National Academy of Sciences. He was also selected to present the
inaugural Henry Wagner Lecture at the 1999 Society of Nuclear Medicine annual
meeting in Los Angeles.
With capabilities in both pharmaceutical development and imaging, Phelps and
his department are riding high on the molecular medicine wave. Looking back, he
can see his historic contributions to the development of PET far behind him,
along with the lessons learned from two old friends who inspire him wherever he