MRI technique distinguishes cancerous from noncancerous cells

A new magnetic resonance imaging technique could potentially make biopsies obsolete by noninvasively detecting sugar molecules that are shed by the outer membranes of cancerous cells.

The technique is described in an article published Friday in the online journal Nature Communications.

“We think this is the first time scientists have found a use in imaging cellular slime,” said Jeff Bulte, PhD, a professor of radiology and radiological science in the Institute for Cell Engineering at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in prepared remarks. “As cells become cancerous, some proteins on their outer membranes shed sugar molecules and become less slimy, perhaps because they’re crowded closer together. If we tune the MRI to detect sugars attached to a particular protein, we can see the difference between normal and cancerous cells.”

Bulte’s team performed a study comparing MRI readings from proteins known as mucins, with and without sugars attached, to see how the signal changed. Then they looked for that signal in four different lab-grown cancer cells and found significantly lower levels of mucin-attached sugars than in normal cells.

Previous research in this area has used MRI, but needed injectable dyes in order to image proteins on the outside of cells that lost sugar. According to Xioolei Song, PhD, lead author of the Nature Communications article, this is the first time a property integral to cancer cells—rather than dye—has been used to detect these cells. The advantage of that, he said, is that it means the entire tumor can be imaged—something that isn’t possible with dyes since they only reach part of a tumor.

So far the technique has only been tested in tube-grown cells and mice. Bulte said the next research step is to see if the technique can distinguish more types of cancerous tumors from benign masses in mice.

According to Bulte and Song, if the technique is shown to have value in human cancer diagnosis it could be used to detect cancers at an earlier stage, monitor responses to chemotherapy, guide biopsies to ensure they sample the most malignant part of a tumor, and possibly make at least some biopsies unnecessary.