New imaging technique shows whether drugs work in cancer patients

11 April 2016  •  Author: Victoria White, Digital Content Producer

The first cancer patient in Europe has been scanned with a revolutionary imaging technique that could enable doctors to see whether a drug is working within a day or two of starting treatment.


The patient is the first to take part in a new metabolic imaging trial of patients across a wide range of cancer types. The study, which is being carried out by Cancer Research UK-funded scientists at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, could show whether patients can stop taking drugs that are not working for them, try different ones and receive the best treatment for their cancer as quickly as possible.

The rapid scan will allow doctors to map out molecular changes in patients, opening up potential new ways to detect cancer and monitor the effects of treatment.

The technique uses a breakdown product of glucose called pyruvate. The pyruvate is labelled with a non-radioactive form of carbon, called carbon 13 (C-13) which makes it 10,000 times more likely to be detected in a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan. Pyruvate is injected into the patient and tracked as the molecule moves around the body and enters cells. The scan monitors how quickly cancer cells break pyruvate down – a measure of how active the cells are that tells doctors whether or not a drug has been effective at killing them.

Technique could save patients months of treatment

Discussing the potential of the new technique, Dr Ferdia Gallagher, co-lead of the study, said: “It’s fantastic that we can now try this technique in patients. We hope this will progress the way cancer treatment is given and make therapy more effective for patients in the future. This new technique could potentially mean that doctors will find out much more quickly if a treatment is working for their patient instead of waiting to see if a tumour shrinks.”

Dr Emma Smith, Cancer Research UK’s science information manager, added: “Finding out early on whether cancer is responding to therapy could save patients months of treatment that isn’t working for them. The next steps for this study will be collecting and analysing the results to find out if this imaging technology provides an accurate early snapshot of how well drugs destroy tumours.”

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