As director of the Animal Imaging Shared Resource at the University of Colorado Cancer Center, Natalie Serkova, PhD, has played an integral part in many groundbreaking projects on the Anschutz Medical Campus.
Overseeing an array of state-of-the-art equipment dedicated to magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), optical imaging, CT and PET, metabolomics, irradiation, and more, Serkova has, over the past 19 years, turned the CU resource into one of the most advanced animal imaging centers in the Rocky Mountain region.
“We receive animals from CSU, CU Boulder, Nebraska, Montana, Wyoming, and elsewhere,” Serkova says. “The major advantage of using imaging in animal models is that it’s not invasive — you don’t have to harm or kill the animal to get your scientific information. It’s also highly translational — if you see the dynamics of cancer profusion in an animal using MRI, you can go and do a similar protocol in cancer patients.”
Recognized by her peers
For her work at CU, Serkova in May received a 2021 Senior Fellow Award of the International Society of Magnetic Resonance in Medicine. The award specifically recognizes her leadership in pre-clinical MRI and significant contributions to functional and molecular MRI in cancer.
“Since high school, I was fascinated by the ability to see inside the brain with MRI,” Serkova says. “I got trained in neuro-imaging in one of the best MRI facilities in Germany, then I did postdocs at Stanford and the University of California San Francisco.”
Serkova trained in animal imaging and human imaging, but she was recruited to the University of Colorado to build an animal imaging program similar to those at Stanford and the UCSF. She collaborates with many researchers on the Anschutz campus, including neuro-oncologists at Children’s Hospital Colorado.
“My background and training are in neuroradiology, so for myself and my research interests, my most interesting collaborations are with our pediatric neuro-oncology team,” she says. “They have developed sophisticated mouse models for different brain tumors, and we developed ultra-high-resolution brain MRI protocols that allow us to see the smallest tumors in the mouse brain, as small as 0.1 millimeter, without killing the mouse.”
Serkova’s job also involves educating researchers on how to read and analyze the animal images so they get the best results from their research. Serkova and her team hold workshops every year, rotating among the Anschutz Medical Campus, CU Boulder, and Colorado State University.
“The challenge was to train and educate our research community in recognizing and learning about the animal imaging techniques,” Serkova says. “With these workshops, they will be able to do MRI analysis, they will know how to ‘read’ optical imaging and CT images, and understand what technique needs to be used to answer specific questions and understand the physics of the imaging.”
Serkova says she is humbled and gratified to receive the International Society of Magnetic Resonance in Medicine award, but she is quick to recognize the assistance she receives from other CU Cancer Center members, including director Richard Schulick, MD, MBA; Animal Imaging core manager Jenna Steiner, AAS, CVT; Heide Ford, PhD, associate director of basic research at the CU Cancer Center; and Michaela Montour, MPA, assistant director of research administration for the CU Cancer Center, as well as her radiology colleagues.
“It’s not just my work; it’s the contributions of all members of my team that helped us get to where we are now,” she says. “It’s definitely not a one-person achievement.”