A new type of scan that measures the stiffness or stretchiness of tissues could help to diagnose different types of brain cancer, a new study reports.
Magnetic resonance elastography, developed at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, in collaboration with King's College, London, was able to differentiate between three brain tumour types based on their mechanical properties.
Solid tumours are composed of dense and compact networks of cells, structural fibres and blood vessels resulting from uncontrolled cellular growth.
As a result tumours are usually stiffer than normal tissue, and this property may help cancers to spread and influence the way they respond to treatment.
ICR researchers have been using elastography to measure the physical properties of tumours, such as their elasticity, with far greater sensitivity than the current technique of physical palpation, where a doctor feels the tumour through the skin with their fingers.
This ‘virtual palpation’ offers great potential to identify differences in tissue make-up between tumour types, or assess how a patient is responding to treatment.
The study, published in Cancer Research, received support from a range of organisations including a Dorothy Hodgkin Postgraduate Award supported by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), and AstraZeneca.
Researchers used elastography to measure the elasticity and viscosity of three types of brain tumours implanted into mice.
All three brain tumours differed slightly in terms of elasticity and viscosity, but all were softer than normal brain tissue. That fits with previous research that has suggested that, while most tumours are stiffer than normal tissue, brain tumours go against this rule.
Study leader Dr Simon Robinson, Team Leader in Radiotherapy and Imaging at the ICR, said: “It’s encouraging that magnetic resonance elastography was able to distinguish between three different tumour models based on their mechanical properties, and this reinforces the case for using this technique to diagnose and stage brain cancers.
"The information from these scans can provide valuable information about the internal structure of a tumour, and could indicate how it might respond to treatments that specifically target the mechanical properties of tumours. A previous study has already successfully used magnetic resonance elastography in the clinic to assess adult brain tumours, so we hope our findings strengthen the case of using this technique.” Additional funding for this study was also received from the Cancer Research UK Cancer Imaging Centres at the ICR and King's College, London, and The Wellcome Trust.