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New imaging technique reveals if breast cancer treatments are working

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by Cancer Research UK | News

27 October 2010

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Cancer Research UK scientists have developed a new imaging technique that can show when breast cancer treatment is working, weeks before current methods. The research is published in the British Journal of Cancer today1 (Wednesday).

By using two specially labelled chemical markers the researchers were able to see the very early changes in cancer cells that show treatment is working, such as DNA damage and cell death.

Current approaches only show that treatment is effective if the tumour starts shrinking, but it can take several weeks before this becomes visible.

Looking at breast cancer cells in the lab and then in mice, the researchers were able to detect the early signs that tumours were responding to treatment with the chemotherapy drug doxorubicin2.

They were able to see this by developing two labelled markers that are involved in cellular processes that are targeted by doxorubicin, highlighting the early effects that the drug is having on cancer cells.

The first marker – [1-13C]pyruvate – shows that doxorubicin is damaging cancer cells DNA – in cancer cells this molecule is converted into other products but this conversion is reduced in cells whose DNA has been damaged by doxorubicin treatment.

The second marker – [1,4-13C2]fumarate – shows that doxorubicin is killing cancer cells as it is only converted into another molecule called malate in cells that are dying due to cancer treatment.

Lead researcher Professor Kevin Brindle, of Cancer Research UK’s Cambridge Research Institute, said: “There has been a need to develop imaging methods that can detect treatment response more accurately and before tumours change size. Our new imaging method not only shows early evidence that treatment is working but could also help predict the long term outcome. We expect that these techniques will have an impact for patients in the near future.”

Treatment for cancer is becoming increasingly personalised – where treatments are chosen according to a patient’s individual cancer – and doctors need to know early on that the treatment is having an effect. While current approaches, including CT scanning and MRI, are relatively simple and readily available it can take several weeks before they detect changes and they can often overestimate tumour shrinkage.

This imaging technique was developed in conjunction with GE Healthcare. Jonathan A. Murray, general manager for Cross Business Programs, at GE Healthcare, said: “The potential for this technology is very exciting and we are delighted to collaborate with Cancer Research UK.”

Dr Lesley Walker, director of cancer information at Cancer Research UK, said: “We need fast and accurate ways of knowing that the treatment is working. This research could help us tailor treatment to each patient by giving doctors a useful tool to check treatments are working after a short time, rather than waiting several weeks to see if the tumour is shrinking, reducing unnecessary treatment for women.”


For media enquiries please contact the Cancer Research UK press office on 020 3469 8300 or, out of hours, the duty press officer on 07050 264 059.

1. Witney

TH, Kettunen MI, Hu DE, Gallagher FA, Bohndiek SE, Napolitano R, & Brindle KM (2010). Detecting treatment response in a model of human breast adenocarcinoma using hyperpolarised [1-(13)C]pyruvate and [1,4-(13)C(2)]fumarate. British journal of cancer PMID: 20924379