Researchers say they have developed a new way of detecting cancer by giving patients an injection of sugar before doing an MRI scan (magnetic resonance imaging).

Scientists from University College London (UCL) have developed a technique they call glucose chemical exchange saturation transfer (glucoCEST).

The work, published in the journal Nature Medicine, is based on the fact that tumors consume a higher amount of glucose compared with healthy tissues, as a way of sustaining their growth.

Dr. Simon Walker-Samuel from the UCL Centre for Advanced Biomedical Imaging says: “We have developed a new state-of-the-art imaging technique to visualize and map the location of tumors that will hopefully enable us to assess the efficacy of novel cancer therapies.”

The researchers found that when sensitizing an MRI scanner to recognize glucose, tumors appeared as bright images on the MRI scans of mice. The tumors can be detected using the same amount of sugar found in half a standard chocolate bar.

Dr. Walker Samuel explains: “GlucoCEST uses radio waves to magnetically label glucose in the body. This can then be detected in the body using conventional MRI techniques.”

Dr. Samuel adds:

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.”

In 2010, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) initiative to reduce unnecessary radiation exposure from medical imaging. With guidelines from the International Commission on Radiological Protection, the FDA looked to promote patient safety through two principles of radiation protection.

The first is known as justification – where medical imaging “should be judged to do more good than harm to the individual patient”. The second principle is dose optimization – where medical imaging examinations should use techniques that are adjusted to administer the “lowest radiation dose that yields an image quality adequate for diagnosis or intervention”.

This study is part of ongoing research efforts to reduce radiation exposure in MRI cancer detection. For example, a previous study from Cancer Research UK used the body’s naturally occurring bicarbonate of soda as a means of detecting cancer in MRI imaging.

Other research from Belgian scientists at the University Hospitals Leuven also revealed a new method of medical imaging that required no radiation exposure. The method involved a ‘diffusion-weighted’ MRI scan and enabled a more accurate diagnosis of lung cancer.

Professor Mark Lythgoe, co-author of the current study and director of the UCL Centre for Advanced Biomedical Imaging, says his team’s research potentially offers a useful and cost-effective method for imaging cancers with MRI.

Prof. Lythgoe adds: “In the future, patients could potentially be scanned in local hospitals, rather than being sent to specialist medical centers.”

UCL’s Professor Xavier Golay adds that this research could also allow vulnerable patient groups – such as pregnant women and young children – to be scanned more regularly without the risks associated with a dose of radiation.