Using New Imaging Techniques to Better Understand Cancer Metabolism

by UCSF Department of Radiology Team on May 1, 2014

The following article was written by David Wilson, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor of Radiology in Residence at UCSF.

Antioxidants, the stuff that helps us ward off disease, may protect healthy individuals, but they can also cause problems for people with cancer.

The human body in general contains a very high concentration of antioxidants to attack noxious materials such as infectious agents, environmental toxins and other substances that cause oxidative stress and may damage or kill cells.  Tumors, unfortunately, also develop their own antioxidant defense strategy that makes them more resistant to radiation, chemotherapy and other conventional therapies used to fight cancer by destroying malignant cells.

Because of that, a major challenge in cancer biology is monitoring and understanding cancer metabolism in vivo.  As explained in a recent feature article in RSNA News, we have developed ways of looking non-invasively at tumors’ own antioxidant defense systems, which we would like to undermine in order to more easily destroy those cells.

Increasingly, reduction and oxidation mechanisms are considered critical to cancer progression. A growing number of studies suggest that antioxidants are highly relevant in cancer aggressiveness and resistance to conventional treatments.

To that end, we are developing molecular imaging techniques for both magnetic resonance (MRI) and positron emission tomography (PET).  Both techniques will allow doctors to inject versions of Vitamin C to assess how cells react real-time in a living organism.

Just as we take Vitamin C as an antioxidant defense to help fend off disease, the MRI approach is based on Vitamin C to help us determine whether or not tumors have developed their own antioxidant mechanisms, with an emphasis on trying to overwhelm those defense mechanisms.

MRI helps us determine the magnitude of the antioxidant defenses of the tumors being studied.  We are using a sophisticated MRI technology called hyperpolarized 13C spectroscopy, which is used to dramatically increase the MRI signal.  This diagnostic method may enhance our ability to know more about specific cancers so that treatment can be more effective. It will also help us determine if our treatments are working, and if so, how effective they are at fighting the cancer.

Our work is currently taking place in the laboratory.  Someday, we hope to use these techniques to fight cancer more effectively in actual patients.

Questions or comments? Join the conversation below!

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Marelize Vermeueln May 3, 2014 at 10:00 am

Your research really caught my attention, as cancer is a very large problem all around the world.
I would just like to know, will there be any disadvantages in the process, when your research is done?
When do you think your new developments will be available for Radiologists around the world to use?
Thank you and well done.


Marie Blue May 5, 2014 at 1:45 am

Interesting research!


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