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First cancer patient in Europe scanned in Cambridge using new technique showing whether drugs work

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by Cancer Research UK | News

11 April 2016

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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.

“We hope this will progress the way cancer treatment is given and make therapy more effective for patients in the future” – Dr Ferdia Gallagher

The patient is the first to take part in a new metabolic imaging trial* of patients across a wide range of cancer types to be carried out by Cancer Research UK-funded scientists at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, part of Cambridge University Hospitals. The study, which is funded by a Wellcome Trust Strategic Award, could show whether patients can stop taking drugs that aren’t 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.

Professor Kevin Brindle, co-lead based at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute, said: “We’re very excited to be the first group outside North America, and the third group world-wide, to test this with patients and we hope that it will soon help improve treatment by putting to an end patients being given treatments that aren’t working for them. Each person’s cancer is different and this technique could help us tailor a patient’s treatment more quickly than before.”

Dr Ferdia Gallagher, co-lead also funded by Cancer Research UK and based at the Department of Radiology at the University of Cambridge**, 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, said: “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.”


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