A new technique for detecting cancer by imaging tumor consumption of sugar with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) has been unveiled. This breakthrough could provide a safer and simpler alternative to standard radioactive techniques and enable radiologists to image tumors in greater detail.

The new technique is called glucose chemical exchange saturation transfer (glucoCEST). It is based on the fact that tumors consume much more of the sugar glucose than normal, healthy tissues because tumors must sustain their growth. The researchers found that sensitizing an MRI scanner to glucose uptake caused tumors to appear as bright images on MRI scans of mice.

Simon Walker-Samuel, PhD, from the University College London Centre for Advanced Biomedical Imaging in the United Kingdom led the research. Walker-Samuel said, “GlucoCEST uses radio waves to magnetically label glucose in the body. This can then be detected in tumors using conventional MRI techniques. The method uses an injection of normal sugar and could offer a cheap, safe alternative to existing methods for detecting tumors, which require the injection of radioactive material.”

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The technique was tested in colorectal tumor models in xenograft mice. It is able to distinguish tumor types with differing metabolic characteristics and pathophysiologies. The cancer can be detected using the same amount of sugar found in half of a standard-sized chocolate bar. The study results are published in Nature Medicine (2013; doi:10.1038/nm.3252).

“Our research reveals a useful and cost-effective method for imaging cancers using MRI—a standard imaging technology available in many large hospitals,” said senior author Mark Lythgoe, PhD, also of University College London. “In the future, patients could potentially be scanned in local hospitals, rather than being referred to specialist medical centers.”

Trials are now underway to detect glucose in human cancers. This approach may allow vulnerable groups, such as pregnant women and children, to be scanned more regularly while avoiding the risks associated with a dose of radiation.