Current approaches only show that treatment is effective if the tumour starts shrinking, but it can take several weeks before this becomes visible.
They were able to see this by developing two labelled markers that are involved in cellular processes that are targeted by doxorubicin, highlighting the early effects that the drug is having on cancer cells.
The first marker – [1-13C]pyruvate – shows that doxorubicin is damaging cancer cells DNA – in cancer cells this molecule is converted into other products but this conversion is reduced in cells whose DNA has been damaged by doxorubicin treatment.
The second marker – [1,4-13C2]fumarate – shows that doxorubicin is killing cancer cells as it is only converted into another molecule called malate in cells that are dying due to cancer treatment.
Lead researcher Professor Kevin Brindle, of Cancer Research UK’s Cambridge Research Institute, said: “There has been a need to develop imaging methods that can detect treatment response more accurately and before tumours change size. Our new imaging method not only shows early evidence that treatment is working but could also help predict the long term outcome. We expect that these techniques will have an impact for patients in the near future.”
Treatment for cancer is becoming increasingly personalised – where treatments are chosen according to a patient’s individual cancer – and doctors need to know early on that the treatment is having an effect. While current approaches, including CT scanning and MRI, are relatively simple and readily available it can take several weeks before they detect changes and they can often overestimate tumour shrinkage.
This imaging technique was developed in conjunction with GE Healthcare. Jonathan A. Murray, general manager for Cross Business Programs, at GE Healthcare, said: “The potential for this technology is very exciting and we are delighted to collaborate with Cancer Research UK.”
Dr Lesley Walker, director of cancer information at Cancer Research UK, said: “We need fast and accurate ways of knowing that the treatment is working. This research could help us tailor treatment to each patient by giving doctors a useful tool to check treatments are working after a short time, rather than waiting several weeks to see if the tumour is shrinking, reducing unnecessary treatment for women.”
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Notes to editors
2. Doxorubicin is used to treat many types of cancer, including breast cancer. One of the ways it works is by binding to the cancer cells’ DNA and blocking an important enzyme called topo-isomerase II. This makes the DNA get tangled up and cancer cells cannot divide and grow.