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Sugar—ordinary glucose—works well as an agent for detecting cancer via MRI, according to British researchers.

The researchers, most of them from University College London, developed a technique called glucose chemical exchange saturation transfer, or glucoCEST. It takes advantage of the fact that tumors consume much more glucose than normal tissues in order to sustain their rapid growth.

Simon Walker-Samuel, PhD, lead author of a report on the research published online Sunday in Nature Medicine, explained:

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 materials.

Dr. Walker-Samuel is a senior research associate at the college’s Centre for Advanced Biomedical Imaging. He was quoted in a news release from the center.

A scan requires only half the amount of sugar found in a standard-size chocolate bar. (No word on what happened to the other half of the chocolate. Undoubtedly, it was put to good use in the lab.)

Essentially, the technique is a variation on PET imaging, without the radiation. “The avid consumption of glucose by tumors is known as the Warburg effect and is a key discriminator of malignant from normal tissue,” Dr. Walker-Samuel said. “This effect is exploited in the clinic with positron emission tomography (PET) imaging, in which a radioactively labeled glucose analog is administered to patients in order to detect metastatic disease.”

Human clinical trials are under way. The sugar doesn’t even have to be injected. “To mirror our experiments in mice,” Dr. Walker-Samuel said, “we are administering glucose via a sugary drink in the MRI scanner.” He added:

If sufficiently sensitive, glucoCEST could complement FDG-PET or provide a cost-effective and safer alternative, potentially with a greater spatial resolution. It could also be used to assess response to therapy or to characterize individual tumor pathophysiology for treatment stratification.

Related CME seminar (up to 13.5 AMA PRA Category 1 credits™): New Horizons in Musculoskeletal MRI


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