Brain image

Sophisticated imaging helps us target tumours

The age-old saying ‘a picture paints a thousand words’ comes to mind today, as we announce a multi-million pound investment into innovative imaging research across the UK.

Imaging what’s going on inside the body is now a crucial part of diagnosing and treating cancer. For many cancer patients, cutting-edge imaging technologies can help precisely pinpoint their disease and track how their cancer responds to treatment.

This often means that a patient’s surgery can be planned more effectively, helping to ensure a surgeon knows precisely what needs to be removed or examined before they get anywhere near the operating theatre. And imaging also helps doctors make important decisions about which treatments are likely to be most effective in real time.

Imaging doesn’t always hit the headlines like the latest ‘wonder drug’ for cancer. But it’s just as vital in helping to tackle the disease. The rapid pace of technological development is opening up more opportunities in the imaging field – and we need to exploit these advances to make imaging even more effective and help more cancer patients.

And thanks to our supporters, that’s what we’re doing. Read on to find out more about what our latest investment could mean for UK research and patients.

£35 million boost

To help cement the UK’s position as a world leader in cancer imaging research, we’ve teamed up with the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) to commit £35 million for five years to four separate cancer imaging centres across the country:

  • The University of Oxford;
  • The Institute of Cancer Research, London;
  • a joint imaging centre between King’s College London and University College London;
  • and a new collaboration between the University of Cambridge and University of Manchester.

This builds on our £50 million investment in imaging technology made in 2008. Each of these imaging centres will harness the latest breakthroughs in imaging technology to do much more than simply identifying where a tumour resides.

For example, at the imaging centre in King’s College London and University College London, researchers are using a technique called microvascular casting, which looks at the healthiness of blood vessels.

In the below image created by Dr Simon Walker-Samuel, you can see the disorganised structure of tumour blood vessels in a bowel cancer tumour, which has important implications in how we could get anti-cancer drugs to the most effective spot in the cancer:

Blood vessels in tumour

Image of bowel tumour blood vessels

And the collaborative imaging centre at The University of Manchester and the University of Cambridge is developing new technologies to help researchers and clinicians to track whether treatment is reaching the tumour itself.

In this diagram, Professor Alan Jackson at the University of Manchester shows a typical MRI scan of a brain tumour from two different patients:

Brain scans

MRI brain scans

The first row of grey images is a standard MRI scan of each patient (a and e), with crosshairs showing where the tumour is. The pink and yellow colours in the second row highlight increased blood vessel growth where the tumour is likely to be expanding.

The third row shows how effectively a labelled cancer drug (green) was able to get to the brain, and the green and red colours in the fourth row show how an experimental treatment was able to boost the delivery of the drug to the tumour.

Unmasking the enemy

These are just two examples of the cutting edge research taking place at these imaging centres. Whether it’s getting the best possible idea of where a tumour is before undergoing surgery, identifying how aggressive the cancer is likely to be, or helping choose the best possible treatment for each patient, such research is vital in our fight against cancer.

By developing ever-more sophisticated ways to pinpoint and track cancer in the body, we’re learning more about our enemy – combined with our efforts to prevent the disease and to treat it, we are leaving cancer nowhere to hide.