Pioneer In Nuclear Medicine Wins Lifetime Award

June 08, 1998

On Monday, June 8, Henry N. Wagner Jr., MD, a professor of Environmental Health Sciences at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, and a pioneer of nuclear medicine, will receive the Cassen Award, a lifetime achievement award, at the 45th Annual Meeting of the Society of Nuclear Medicine 1998 in Toronto, Canada. The Society is recognizing Wagner for his use of radioactive materials in the diagnosis, prevention, and monitoring of disease.

In the 1960s, Wagner wanted to track biochemical events as they occurred within the living body, but the most widely used isotope at the time, reactor-bred Carbon 14, emitted energy that was not powerful enough to escape the human body, and so was of no use in his work. (Carbon 14's long half life allowed researchers to study single cells in test tubes, thereby revolutionizing biochemistry; but Wagner needed more high-energy isotopes.) He led a resurgence of interest in the shorter-lived isotopes produced by cyclotrons, which, unlike Carbon 14, had the high energy needed to escape the body and be measured.

Using cyclotron isotopes, in 1963 his lab became the first to track clots in the lung, and then went on to use tracers in the diagnosis of infections, coronary artery disease, and kidney diseases, among others. Many times, Wagner himself was the experimental subject.

In 1983, his lab accomplished the first imaging of neuroreceptors in the brain. Their pinpointing of the dopamine receptors inside the brain led to much work in addiction and drug design. The next year, they located the opiate receptors. "We now know that cocaine affects the dopamine receptors," said Wagner, "and we continue to learn about addiction."

Parallel to his work in medicine, Wagner also became an expert on the public health implications of radiation, and received an appointment at the Hopkins School of Public Health in 1961. In that capacity, he has served on the Maryland Governor's Panel on the Impact of Nuclear Energy and he conducted an investigation of the nuclear disaster at Three Mile Island.

"When I began my medical career," Wagner said, "I felt like a man standing in two rowboats. In 1958, I was beginning my residency in Internal Medicine, but I'd also become fascinated by the new field of nuclear medicine. I wanted to explore them both and I did, but I worried that the two fields might gradually start floating off in two different directions." He needn't have worried.

To Wagner, his most significant work has been the studies of brain chemistry. "Until recently, philosophers and psychologists had to rely on introspection to fathom the workings of the mind," he says. "Nuclear medicine has made it possible to explore the chemistry of the living brain and its relationship to thinking, behavior, and emotions. Perhaps the only real alternative to war is a better understanding of the chemistry of the brain."

The Cassen Award is named after Dr. Benedict Cassen, inventor of a scanner that was crucial in the advancement of nuclear medicine.

Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health

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