Chocolate and fizzy drinks could be used as cancer detectors because malignant tumours feed off sugar

  • Malignant tumours consume more glucose than healthy tissues
  • Scientists can scan for glucose uptake using MRI to identify tumors

By Nicholas McDermott DailyMail  PUBLISHED: 14:48 EST, 7 July 2013 | Breakthrough: Scientists have developed a way of tracking tumours which have absorbed glucose

Breakthrough: Scientists have developed a way of tracking tumours which have absorbed glucose

Chocolate, fizzy drinks and other sugar-laden foods could soon be used to detect cancer.

Scientists have developed a technique that identifies the disease by tracking how sugar is absorbed by the body.

Malignant tumours consume much more glucose – a simple sugar – than healthy tissues in order to feed their rapid growth.

By adjusting an MRI scanner to look for glucose uptake, researchers at University College London discovered tumours glowed brightly during imaging, after something sweet had been consumed.

The breakthrough provides a safer and simpler alternative to standard radioactive techniques, and could be available in as little as 18 months.

Due to the need for radiation, the current method of scanning is not recommended for pregnant women and children, and only available at a limited number of larger hospitals and specialist centres.

In contrast, MRI facilities are commonplace, meaning less travel for patients. And as there are no adverse effects from the technique, it can be used on a frequent basis to track whether a cancer is responding to therapy and tailor a patient’s treatment.

As well as being cheaper and safer, the new method also raises hopes of improved survival rates.

Senior author Professor Mark Lythgoe, director of UCL’s Centre for Advanced Biomedical Imaging (CABI), said the results had been unexpected.

He said: ‘I certainly didn’t believe it as possible to fine tune an MRI scanner to pick up glucose movement even 18 months ago. But our research proves it can be done.

‘It can be done after consuming a sweet drink, like a cola or a fruit juice, or food. We can detect cancer using the same sugar content found in half a standard sized chocolate bar.’

In the study, published in the journal Nature Medicine, the team tracked tumours in mice with bowel cancer. They found the cancerous growth was detectable by an MRI scanner following glucose ingestion.

 The method has also been trialled on a handful of cancer patients with early signs of success.

He said: ‘It was promising. You could see the uptake of the glucose in the area around the tumour.’

Unlike the current method of scanning, known as positron emission tomography (PET), which requires a trace amount of a radioactive substance to be injected into a patient, the new technique is needle free.

‘Effectively you don’t even have to give a patient an injection, as sugary food is absorbed so quickly, so it will be good news for those who don’t like needles,’ said Professor Lythgoe.

Alternative: MRI scans are a safer and simpler method of detecting tumours than standard radioactive techniques

Alternative: MRI scans are a safer and simpler method of detecting tumours than standard radioactive techniques

He added: ‘As for PET, there is always a small risk associated with anything involving radioactivity. So it can only be used sparingly, and is not suitable for pregnant women or children.

‘Too much radiation can damage DNA, and can either result in cell deaths or some cellular damage which can lead to secondary cancerous growths.

‘But with glucose scanning, there are no adverse effects, so it can be carried out much more often. If a doctor wants to follow up how a cancer is responding to treatment then they can scan the tumour on a weekly, or even a daily basis.’

Lead researcher Dr Simon Walker-Samuel, also from CABI, said the newly-developed technique used radio waves to magnetically label glucose in the body.

‘This can then be detected in tumours using conventional MRI techniques,’ he said. ‘It could offer a cheap, safe alternative to existing methods for detecting tumours, which require the injection of radioactive material.’

Clinical trials are now taking place, said Professor Lythgoe, who added: ‘We don’t have to refine the technique, as it stands it works. In a year’s time, we will be able to see hospitals picking it up.’

Dr Kat Arney, Cancer Research UK’s science communications manager, said: ‘Researchers have known for many years that cancer cells produce energy and use sugar slightly differently from healthy cells.

‘This exciting experimental scanning technique, suggests that regular, non-radioactive glucose can be used to detect bowel tumours in mice. It’s got the potential to become a safer, cheaper way of diagnosing and monitoring cancer, so the next step is to test it in patients – using controlled doses of pure glucose rather than sweets or chocolate –  to see how well it works in the clinic.

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  1. Fascinating. I just had two PET scans and MRIs and knew that the scientist were looking for cellular activity in the PET. I haven’t eaten sugar or soft drinks in 30 years because they react strange in my body . . . I like this concept (especially after having IVs for tests in my arms for 5 days last week).

  2. Pingback: Good News | Seventeen 20

  3. I have Gist and alarmed at sugar “feeding” cancer. I am a chocoholic and eat min 250 gm of chocolate a day. I have had no progression for 5 years on 400 mg of Gleevic. Should i be concerned

    • Dear Jeff,
      I have Wildtype Gist (SDHB germline mutation) and was just at the Pediatric GIST Clinic at NIH. There is still no cure for us with Wildtype Gist (3% of Gists don’t respond to Gleevec or its successors). I wouldn’t worry about sugar. I’m sure the 7 head GIST doctors at the conference would also say not to worry. It is just a novel way to test for tumors that they are exploring. I’m serious that they delivered the substance that was to go up my veins in a air tight radioactive container thus to me, if sugar can trigger the cellular activity as well as radiation let’s try for sugar. I’m glad Gleevec is working for you. There are some of us in another boat where they’ve yet to find a med that works.

      Cathy Freeman

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