Cancer Screening with Sugar

Researchers from King’s College London and University College London (UCL) recently unveiled a potentially safer and less expensive way to detect cancer cells in humans. 

It all has to do with the cancer cells’ sweet tooth.

The new method, called glucose chemical exchange saturation transfer, or glucoCEST, uses specially tuned magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to detect the higher levels of glucose, a common sugar, as tumor cells use it for energy. In the MRI scanner, tumor cells light up when a patient is injected with glucose.

In other words, the test uses radio waves from conventional MRIs to determine how quickly sugar is consumed by tumor cells, which need more glucose than healthy cells to survive.

Researchers say the glucoCEST technique could provide a cheaper, safer alternative for detecting cancer cells, especially because it takes advantage of existing technology that’s common in most hospitals.

‘Safer and More Cost-effective’

Mark Lythgoe, director of UCL’s Centre for Advanced Biomedical Imaging and a senior author of the study, published in the journal Nature Medicine, said the future of cancer detection involves the same amount of sugar found in a typical chocolate bar.

“Our research reveals a useful and cost-effective method for imaging cancers using MRI—a standard imaging technology available in many large hospitals,” Lythgoe said in a statement. “In the future, patients could potentially be scanned in local hospitals, rather than being referred to specialist medical centres.”

Previous research has shown that simple, non-toxic sugar works as a contrast agent for detecting cancers, but when tests like glucoCEST will be commercially available is still unknown.

However, the new technique does begin to chip away at a problem highlighted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration: the need to reduce radiation exposure from common imaging tests.

Unlike traditional cancer screening methods, glucoCEST doesn’t use injected radioactive materials. While the levels of radiation used in cancer diagnosis are considered safe when compared to the outcome of not using the tests, the King’s College researchers say their method poses even fewer risks to patients, especially high-risk groups, such as pregnant women and small children.

While there are numerous statistics available, the National Cancer Institute says the percentage of premature deaths from cancer that could be prevented by comprehensive screening ranges from three to 35 percent. But whether patients can afford the cost of preventive cancer screenings is another matter.

The price of some cancer screening tests was brought to the fore when actress Angelina Jolie underwent a double mastectomy after a genetic test showed she had a BRCA1 gene mutation, which put her at a high risk of developing breast cancer.

However, as she acknowledged in an editorial in The New York Times, the $3,000 price tag for the BRCA test is more than most women can afford.

Hopefully, tests like glucoCEST will make cancer screenings and diagnostic tests cheaper and more accessible for everyone.

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