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PET pioneer meets life head-on
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 repairs.

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 deliver.

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 year.

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 sodas.

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 goes.

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Michael E. Phelps, Ph.D.
Dr. David Channin
Dr. Gary M. Onik
Dr. Geoff Rubin


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