Imaging sugar consumption offers safer method for detecting cancer

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A new technique for detecting cancer by imaging the consumption of sugar with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) has been developed by UCL scientists. The breakthrough could provide a safer and simpler alternative to standard radioactive techniques and enable radiologists to image tumours in greater detail.

The technique, called ‘glucose chemical exchange saturation transfer’ (glucoCEST), is based on the fact that tumours consume much more glucose than normal, healthy tissues in order to sustain their growth.

The researchers found that sensitising an MRI scanner to glucose uptake caused tumours to appear as bright images on MRI scans of mice.

Lead researcher Dr Simon Walker-Samuel, from the UCL Centre for Advanced Biomedical Imaging (CABI), said: ‘GlucoCEST uses radio waves to magnetically label glucose in the body. This can then be detected in tumours using conventional MRI techniques. The method uses an injection of normal sugar and could offer a cheap, safe alternative to existing methods for detecting tumours, which require the injection of radioactive material.’

Positron emission tomography (PET) imaging is the standard technique to detect a metastatic disease, in which radioactively-labelled glucose is administered to patients. The adapted MRI scanner, which amplifies the signal from glucose via the water signal, is able to detect unlabelled glucose without the radiation dose associated with PET. This could allow vulnerable patient groups such as pregnant women or children to be scanned, or for longitudinal measurements to be performed with less risk to the patient.

According to Professor Mark Lythgoe, director of CABI and a senior author on the study, cancer can be detected ‘using the same sugar content found in half a standard sized chocolate bar’.

He added: ‘Our research reveals a useful and cost-effective method for imaging cancers using MRI, a standard imaging technology available in many large hospitals. In the future, patients could potentially be scanned in local hospitals, rather than being referred to specialist medical centres.’

The study is published in the journal Nature Medicine and trials are now underway to detect glucose in human cancers and to evaluate glucoCEST’s sensitivity on clinical scanners.

The work was supported by public and charitable funding from the National Institute for Health Research University College London Hospitals Biomedical Research Centre, Cancer Research UK, Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), and the British Heart Foundation (BHF).

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