New method to detect early-stage cancer identified

New method to detect early-stage cancer identified

A new method to detect cancer in its early stages using a targeted MRI contrast agent that binds to proteins has been identified by a team of researchers.

In their study, published in the journal Science Advances, the authors describe a newly identified biomarker for detection of liver metastases. With current tests like biopsies, cancer in the liver is often detected in advanced stages, which can limit treatment options and lower overall survival rates. The discovery could have wide-ranging impacts, including more effective diagnosis and precision treatment, and less risk to patients.

"This is a game changer. It has the possibility to have many more applications, really for any type of cancer," said the senior author. "We are already applying it to 10 different types of cancer in the lab."

The researchers developed an agent that can target certain receptors -- in this case, chemokine receptor 4 (CXCR4). The receptor is overexpressed in common metastasis organs, such as the liver, among people who have cancer.

The CXCR4 targeted protein-based MRI contrast agent is expected to overcome major barriers in early diagnosis by showing even tiny instances of cancer cells on multi-color scans called precision MRI (pMRI), a new imaging methodology.

Using MRI technology, contrast agents carry the element gadolinium to enhance the images. During their previous work analyzing calcium, the authors decided to test how a metal, like gadolinium, would interact with protein. The protein wraps around the element and carries it to the site for imaging. The team found that protein design is much more effective in targeting the signs of disease.

"Currently, it is difficult to see early stages of disease in the liver, even in invasive biopsy," said the senior author. "Diagnostic testing using this contrast agent can not only identify the presence of disease but differentiate the stages of disease with high sensitivity and accuracy. That's the beauty of this work."

The findings are so promising, the targeted protein contrast agent is now being fast-tracked by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the first step toward clinical trials to gauge its efficacy in humans.

"We have already met with the FDA, so we have a blueprint," said the senior author. "We hope within 18 months to two years we can conduct our first clinical trials in patents."