Developments in magnetic resonance imaging have led to a pioneering new technique that scans the patient's entire body. This new kind of scan could be useful for showing doctors where a patient's bones may be affected by cancer.
Magnetic resonance imaging - or MRI - is an imaging test that uses magnets and radio waves to create pictures of the body. Unlike X-rays, which use radiation to create images of the body, there are no side effects associated with MRI scans.
Biopsies are not always an accurate measure of how far cancer has spread, and they are painful for the patient. They can also be inconvenient, as sometimes multiple biopsies are required if the first sample is not good enough for analysis.
The UK-based organisations The Institute of Cancer Research and Cancer Research UK co-funded research into the new scanning technique, the results of which have been published in the journal Radiology.
Julia Frater, senior cancer information nurse at Cancer UK, says:
"Finding kinder ways to monitor how patients respond to treatment is really important, particularly in the case of myeloma where taking bone marrow samples can be painful. This research demonstrates how an advanced imaging technique could provide a whole-skeleton 'snapshot' to track the response of tumours in individual bones. Finding ways to make treatments gentler and improve the experience for patients is an important focus for Cancer Research UK and the research we fund."
What are the benefits of the new whole-body scan?
The research found that the new MRI scan was more accurate in documenting the spread of myeloma - and whether the patient was responding or not to treatment - than existing tests. And not only is the new scan more accurate than conventional tests such as biopsies or blood tests, but also it is faster - with doctors being able to view the results immediately.
As part of the study looking at the new scanning technique, 26 patients had the whole-body scan before and after treatment. In 86% of these cases, doctors were able to use these scans to correctly identify whether patients had responded to treatment. In 80% of cases, the doctors were also able to correctly identify patients who had not responded to treatment.
In 24 out of 25 patients, the doctors were also able to correctly gauge how restricted water movement in the tissues was, based on the scans.
With the new scan, doctors are able to detect cancer in almost any bone in the body, with the exception of the skull. The skull is a difficult area of the body to visualize in MRI scans, often due to metal dental implants and fillings.
Dr. Faith Davies, from The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust, who conducted the trials, is positive about the findings of the research:
"Myeloma can affect bones anywhere in the body, which is why this study is so important. We've shown that whole body MRI scans can accurately monitor how myeloma patients are responding to treatment, allowing doctors to make more informed decisions. With this new scan, if a treatment isn't working the patient can be moved onto new therapies that might be more effective much more quickly."
"This is a small study, so our next step will be to try out the technology in more patients and refine it," says Dr. Davies. "In the future we hope this new tool will help doctors extend the life of more myeloma patients."
In 2013, Medical News Today reported on another new development in scanning for cancer - this time using MRI and sugar.