The California Cure New Directions in Diagnostics: Dr. Michael Phelps

Mike Phelps is the kind of scientist who puts a sign near the entrance to UCLA’s Institute for Molecular Medicine that says, “To enter here, you must have a good idea.” Phelps can do that—seeing as he’s the director of the place, not to mention the Norton Simon Professor and chair of Medical and Molecular Pharmacology and founder of the Crump Institute for Molecular Imagining.

Besides, for an Irish-American kid who admits he graduated second from the bottom in his high school class, Phelps has come up with few good ideas himself—namely the positron emission tomography, commonly referred to as the PET scan.

Begun in the mid ’70s, PET—and its subsequent refinements—ushered in the era of molecular medicine, allowing for the first time not just a static view into the body but a window into the biological processes of organs and issues as they are occurring. Not one to rest on his past achievements, today Phelps marshals a multidisciplinary team of researchers in search of ever more powerful and individualized diagnostics.

It’s incredibly complicated stuff, but Phelps is brilliant enough to be able to explain in understandable terms how highly sophisticated diagnostics can impact patients looking for answers: “Remember how you used to bring your car into a mechanic and they’d look at it symptomatically? They’d put a new carburetor on; it would work for a little bit, then quit. So you’d take it back, and that would go on and on for weeks.

But today you take your car in, they hook it in to the computer, they run diagnostics, they say, “The problems is in this area, in this chip, it’s that transistor. Done.” We need the same thing in medicine, to run diagnostics at the level of patients’ own individual chemistry and biology so that they get the maximum benefit. There is still a hell of a lot of work to be done, but it must be done. We can’t afford medicine as it is today.”

Although this one isn’t on the wall, Phelps has one more rule for researchers at the institute: The rule is there are no rules. “If your hope is to create a new way, don’t try to just improve the way everybody’s using now,” he says. “Take the risks.” —Samantha Dunn