Simon Cherry Elected to National Academy of Engineering

Simon Cherry, distinguished professor of biomedical engineering at UC Davis

Simon Cherry, Distinguished Professor of Biomedical Engineering at UC Davis

Simon Cherry, a Distinguished Professor of Biomedical Engineering, who has pioneered new ways to image the body, is the latest faculty member from the University of California, Davis, to be elected to the National Academy of Engineering.

“Simon does extraordinary work that exemplifies the university’s commitment to interdisciplinary research designed to improve the human condition,” said Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi. “He is a groundbreaking scientist and I could not be happier for him or prouder to see him receive this much-deserved recognition.”

Cherry’s lab has developed a series of new machines for imaging the body in medicine and biomedical research, often combining techniques such as positron emission tomography, or PET, with computed tomography X-ray scanning, or magnetic resonance imaging. These different imaging methods yield different kinds of information regarding the structure and function of tissues and organs.

“It’s a great honor, and very unexpected,” Cherry said.

In 2015, Cherry and Ramsey Badawi, professor of radiology at UC Davis, won a $15.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to develop a PET scanner capable of imaging the entire body at the same time, allowing for more accurate imaging while reducing radiation exposure. The project grew out of a seed grant from the UC Davis Research Investments in Sciences and Engineering, or RISE, program.

“Professor Cherry’s well-deserved recognition further validates the growth and strength of our world-renowned Department of Biomedical Engineering,” said Jennifer Sinclair Curtis, dean of the College of Engineering. “Professor Cherry is the 22nd member of the college faculty to have been elected to one of the prestigious national academies, an honor he has earned for his innovative research in molecular imaging systems and technologies that are certain to improve the screening, detection and diagnosis or cancer and other diseases.”

Astronomy to medicine

Born in England, Cherry’s first love was astronomy, and he earned a bachelor’s degree in physics and astronomy from University College London. But as he considered a doctoral degree, he decided to go into medical imaging instead.

“There are a lot of similarities to astronomy, you are using many different types of radiation to create images, and the more I learned the more enthusiastic I got about the field,” Cherry said.

Cherry carried out his Ph.D. research on PET imaging at London’s Royal Marsden Hospital, affiliated with the University of London. PET uses short-lived radioactive tracers to follow metabolic activity in the body. A common clinical use is to look for the spread of cancer in the body.

After completing his Ph.D., Cherry came to the U.S. in 1990 to work with Edward Hoffman and Michael Phelps, two of the inventors of PET, at UCLA and later joined the faculty there.

Building a new program at UC Davis

In 2001, he joined the fledgling Department of Biomedical Engineering at UC Davis, where then-department chair Katherine Ferrara planned to establish an imaging program. 

“This was a new challenge and a great opportunity to create a program,” Cherry said. “I think I was the fourth faculty member hired into the department, and I’ve never regretted coming here.”

Cherry collaborated with researchers across campus including the School of Medicine, Center for Comparative Medicine, California National Primate Research Center and School of Veterinary Medicine to develop PET scanners and other imaging machines for use in biomedical research, especially in animal models. More recently, his work has moved into human clinical research and practice, including the EXPLORER whole-body PET scanner project funded by the NIH in 2015.

With these investments from funding agencies and from the university, Cherry sees the biomedical imaging program at UC Davis as continuing to grow.

“In 10 years I hope we’ll have one of the most comprehensive imaging programs in the world,” Cherry said. “I still feel like I’m just beginning.”

Cherry is one of 80 new members announced Feb. 8. He is the 11th current or retired member of the UC Davis faculty to be elected to the prestigious academy, including Ferrara and Katehi. It is one of four organizations that make up the National Academies of the U.S., established by Congress to advise the nation on a wide range of scientific issues.