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German researchers find sweet alternative to conventional MR contrast agents

by Lauren Dubinsky , Senior Reporter
Sugar’s usefulness isn’t limited to sweetening your morning coffee — it’s also showing promise as an MR imaging agent.

Radiologists and physicists at the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg announced they have successfully employed this novel type of imaging.

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Contrast agents enhance signals in blood vessels and the spaces between cells, but are unable to reach the interior of the cell. Glucose can fill that need because it’s taken up and then broken down within the cell.

However, there are low levels of glucose in the body, which makes it difficult to see with conventional MR. In order to visualize glucose level changes in brain tissue after the patient is injected with a glucose solution, the team used an ultrahigh-field 7T MR scanner and a special mode for reinforcing the glucose signal.

This method is based on a physical principle called magnetization transfer effect, which has previously not been possible to use for human glucose imaging. The signal from the glucose protons is transferred to bodily water and measured with MR.

About five sugar cubes are needed to make the glucose solution. Using the solution, the German team was able to observe the changes of glucose signals in healthy brain regions, as well as pathogenic changes in human brain cancer.

PET imaging is traditionally used to visualize elevated glucose uptake in tumors, but it requires radioactively-labeled glucose molecules. The benefit of glucose MR imaging is that it doesn’t require any radioactivity.

But before it can be used clinically, a few things need to be ironed out. Heinz-Peter Schlemmer, radiologist at the center, stated that they don’t yet know how the shares of measured glucose are distributed between vessels and extracellular space, as well as the cell interior.

"If we can confirm that substantial signal levels originate from glucose in the cell interior, this would be important additional information for tumor imaging and functional MRI. This could enhance therapy planning and monitoring,” he added.

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