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New MRI Contrast Agent Flocks To Tumors

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A new iron-based MRI contrast agent offers not only the benefit of safety but also a better means of differentiating  between benign and malignant tumors.

University of Pennsylvania engineers coated iron oxide nanoparticles with glycol chitosan, a sugar-based polymer that reacts to acids. The sugar keeps the particles from binding or being absorbed by the body, but this particular formulation allows them to become ionized in acidic environments and thus attracted to such areas.

Enter the Warburg effect: Most healthy cells are aerobic, getting energy primarily from oxygen, but cancer cells are anaerobic, getting energy from glucose and turning it into lactic acid. Cancer cells also disrupt the blood flow around them, making it harder for the body to clear away the acid.

So acid-attracted iron oxide nanoparticles will cluster around tumors and make them stand out on MRI images. Said Andrew Tsourkas, PhD, who did the research along with graduate student Samuel H. Crayton:

One of the reasons we like our approach is that it hits a lot of tumors; almost all tumors exhibit a change in the acidity of their microenvironment.

Dr. Tsourkas, an associate professor of bioengineering at Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, was quoted in a Penn news release. The research was published in the December 27 issue of ACS Nano.

The new coating could work well for other uses too, Dr. Tsourkas said:

You can take any nanoparticle and put this coating on it, so it’s not limited to imaging by any means. You could also use it to deliver drugs to tumor sites.

It gets better: The more malignant a tumor, the more it disrupts blood vessels, and therefore the more aciditic its environment. So the new nanoparticles do a good job differentiating malignant from nonmalignant tumors.

That could particularly benefit patients getting an MRI scan as a secondary breast cancer screen. MRI’s high sensitivity but low specificity can work against it, as Dr. Tsourkas explained: “The screening detects a lot of tumors, but many of them are benign. Having a tool like ours would allow clinicians to better differentiate the benign and malignant tumors.”

That explains why the research was funded partly by the Department of Defense Breast Cancer Research Program (yes, such a thing exists).

Related seminar: CT/MRI of the Abdomen and Pelvis

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