All in a Day’s Work: Veronica Clavijo Jordan on tackling cancer and crowdfunding molecular imaging research

As a child in La Paz, Bolivia, Veronica Clavijo Jordan was intrigued by science and medicine. “I used to love astronomy and biology,” she says. “I particularly remember loving the biology classes where we had lab and learned about anatomy.” Today, as an instructor in the MGH Martinos Center in Charlestown, Mass., she is still pursuing a fascination with the inner workings of the body, using molecular magnetic resonance imaging to accurately diagnose and monitor response to treatment in cancer, fibrosis and inflammatory disease.

Clavijo Jordan has never wavered in her devotion to the study and application of biomedical sciences. After graduating high school and moving to the US, she earned a degree in bioengineering from Arizona State University. A stint in industry followed and then she joined the PhD program at ASU, where she worked on the design, synthesis and evaluation of synthetic paramagnetic and superparamagnetic crystal nanoparticles.

Her PhD work proved an important crossroads in her career. “During the development of these nanoparticles, I was first exposed to the field of molecular MRI,” she says. “My interest in metals in medicine came after my postdoctoral tenure, where I worked in the design and evaluation of zinc-sensitive Gd-based MRI contrast agents, and where we made the discovery of the stimulated zinc secretion in the prostate and how we can use it to detect early malignant transformations in the prostate with MRI.”

In 2018, Clavijo Jordan joined the Martinos Center, where she continues to devote herself to molecular MR imaging of disease. She has demonstrated, for example, that it is possible to image treatment response and onset of disease with molecular probes that target fibrosis in the liver and inflammation in the pancreas. Also, she remains passionate about identifying cancers with zinc-sensitive MRI contrast agents. To this end, she and collaborators from Texas, Canada, the UK and the Martinos Center validated her initial imaging findings by obtaining metal concentration maps of healthy and malignant prostate tissues at a Synchrotron facility in Oxfordshire, UK. Currently, she and colleagues are exploring the role that metals like zinc and copper may play in differentiating cancer lesions from benign conditions and indolent and castrate-resistant prostate cancer.

Clavijo Jordan is thrilled with her new academic home. Not only are the research interests of the molecular MRI team a “perfect match” for her own, she has found that the investigators in the Center to be an especially smart and inquisitive crowd. “I love the fact that there is no shortage of scientific curiosity, and that I am constantly learning from others,” she says. “For me that is invaluable.”

Moving Beyond the Usual Sources of Research Funding

Because there is such a crucial need to establish effective markers of cancer that can be detected early in the disease, Clavijo Jordan is exploring sources of funding other than the traditional sources for academic research. In particular, she is planning to post a project on the crowdfunding website experiment.com, a platform that allows donors to contribute directly to studies from across the spectrum of scientific research.

With this project, she and colleagues will examine the role of metal ions in the development of cancers of organs that secrete zinc in response to a stimulus – pancreas, brain and breast, as well as prostate – where dysregulation of secretion is known to be a hallmark of the disease. “We will first test multiple agents known to stimulate the secretion of digestive enzymes, initially in vitroand then in vivo,” she says. “Establishing a protocol to screen for effective agents that stimulate enzyme and zinc co-secretion will be used as a platform to expand to other secretory organs where we will be able to investigate the detection of breast cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease, in the context of zinc dysregulation in each organ.”

She feels the crowdfunding model can be especially valuable with this type of work.

“We have all been affected one way or another by one of these diseases – personally, or through a family member or a friend,” she says, “Together we can work towards finding a cure, or at the very least learn from the diseases to attack them more effectively.”

Gary Boas