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Oxygen test 'could detect aggressive cancers'

15 December 2015 08:14

An oxygen-enhanced MRI scan could lead to more effective cancer treatments

An oxygen-enhanced MRI scan could lead to more effective cancer treatments

A new oxygen test could help identify cancerous tumours before they spread, researchers say.

Scientists from the Institute of Cancer Research in London and University of Manchester have developed a technique that uses an MRI scan to map areas of oxygen deprivation within tumours.

Lack of oxygen, or hypoxia, is often a sign that the cancer is growing aggressively and more resistant to radiotherapy and chemotherapy. It also stimulates the growth of blood vessels linked to tumours that promote the spread of cancer.

The new scan could help doctors target dangerous tumours with high doses of radiotherapy, and monitor the effectiveness of cancer treatments by tracking oxygen.

Clinical trials

Study co-leader Dr Simon Robinson says the research, published in the journal Cancer Research, provides strong evidence to validate the use of oxygen-enhanced MRI to identify, quantify and map tumour hypoxia.

The new scan was tested on mice and is now being further developed with clinical studies of cancer patients.

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Pure oxygen

The oxygen-enhanced MRI technique works by tracking changes to image intensity caused by concentrations of dissolved oxygen altering in blood plasma and tissue fluid. It is carried out while the patient inhales pure oxygen.

Since some tissues take up the extra oxygen more rapidly than others, the scientists predicted that the image alterations would be much less marked in hypoxic tumour regions.

Long-term goals

Dr James O'Connor, who co-led the research, says there is currently no validated, affordable and widely available clinical imaging technique that can rapidly assess the distribution of tumour hypoxia.

Ultimately, he hopes that oxygen-enhanced MRI will not only help to identify the most dangerous tumours, but will also assist planning for radiotherapy treatment and monitoring treatment response.

Nell Barrie, senior science information manager at Cancer Research UK, welcomed the study, saying that spotting when cancer cells run out of oxygen could help improve treatment, especially for more aggressive tumours.