Smart MRI scan may also spot aggressive childhood cancers

A type of smart MRI scan used in people with heart disease could help assess whether children’s cancers are especially aggressive and spot early signs that targeted treatments are working, say researchers.

The study, published in the journal Cancer Research, showed that the MRI imaging technique, known as T1-mapping, could offer crucial insights into the biology of childhood cancers and give an early warning of how effective targeted treatments were likely to be.

T1 mapping scans measure how water molecules interact at a microscopic level inside cells to understand the cellular make-up of tissue and are used in heart disease to assess damage to heart muscle tissue.

The researchers from The Institute of Cancer Research, London (UK) found that the non-invasive scanning technique has the potential to pick out children with high-risk forms of neuroblastoma, a type of childhood tumour.

“Our findings show that an imaging technique readily available on most MRI scanners has the potential to pick out children with aggressive cancer and give us early signs of whether a treatment is working,” said study author Yann Jamin from The Institute of Cancer Research, London.

“We’ve shown in mice that this technique can give us detailed insights into the biology of neuroblastoma tumours and help guide use of precision medicine, and next we want to assess its effectiveness in children with cancer,” Jamin added.

It is easy to perform and analyse T1 MRI scans, and they could be used to provide insights into many aspects of cancer biology – and help doctors to design tailored treatments based on how aggressive a tumour appears to be, the researchers said.

During the findings, researchers studied T1 mapping in mice with an aggressive form of neuroblastoma to get a clear picture of the microscopic and physical characteristics of the tumour.

The team used artificial intelligence to map the different cell populations in tumours and compared these maps with those created using non-invasive T1 mapping MRI scans.

The study found that regions with high T1 values – where water molecules can behave ‘more freely’ – corresponded to hotspots of more aggressive cancer cells, which spread and grow faster.

The researchers believe T1 mapping scans could improve the use of precision medicine in children with neuroblastoma and potentially in cancer patients more widely, by ensuring treatments are tailored for each patient, and rapidly stopped when they are not working.

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