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Breakthrough MRI Technology from Israel Promises Early Detection of Pancreatic Cancer

New MRI method from Weizmann Institute offers promising early diagnosis for one of the deadliest cancers.

Pancreatic cancer, known for its late detection and high mortality rate, may soon be diagnosed earlier thanks to a groundbreaking Israeli MRI technique that makes pancreatic tumors visible at an early stage.

Detecting pancreatic cancer is challenging due to the pancreas's deep location in the abdomen, which varies between individuals, often hiding tumors until it is too late for effective treatment. Despite being the 12th most common cancer globally, pancreatic cancer was the sixth deadliest in 2020 and is projected to become the deadliest by 2030 without improved detection methods.

An innovative MRI method developed by the Weizmann Institute of Science offers a solution by tracking how cells metabolize glucose, similar to glucose tolerance tests for diabetes. This research, recently published in Science Advances, builds on a nearly century-old discovery by Nobel Prize laureate Otto Warburg that cancer cells consume glucose at unusually high rates compared to normal cells, a phenomenon known as the Warburg effect. This effect results in glucose fermenting into lactate rather than being fully metabolized into carbon dioxide.

Leveraging this metabolic quirk, the Weizmann MRI method maps specific metabolic products unique to cancer cells, potentially allowing for the identification of pancreatic cancer. The research team, led by Prof. Lucio Frydman and Prof. Avigdor Scherz, used chemically altered glucose containing deuterium, a stable isotope of hydrogen. This modified glucose was injected into mice with pancreatic tumors before scanning.

According to Prof. Frydman, this new method may surpass traditional MRI and positron emission tomography (PET) scans, both of which struggle to accurately identify pancreatic tumors. “Traditional MRI fails to detect pancreatic tumors because, even when external contrast agents are added, the scanning is not specific enough to highlight the presence and location of the cancer. Doctors can’t see the tumor until the patient feels its effects,” Frydman said.

He explained that even when scans show abnormalities, they often cannot distinguish between inflammation, benign cysts, or cancer. PET scans are similarly unreliable, as positive results do not always indicate cancer, and negative results do not guarantee the absence of cancer.

Current preventive measures for pancreatic cancer include periodic CT and MRI scans, often with invasive endoscopic biopsies, but this approach rarely succeeds. The new MRI method addresses this diagnostic gap by detecting distinct metabolic patterns in normal and cancerous tissues.

“In healthy cells, glucose digestion ends with carbon dioxide, which we exhale,” Frydman explained. “Cancer cells, however, stop this process early, producing lactate, which aids in their proliferation.”

The researchers faced the challenge of detecting the small amounts of lactate produced by cancer cells, as conventional MRI measures abundant protons in tissue water, overshadowing the faint lactate signal. To overcome this, the team replaced glucose’s protons with deuterium. This “deuterized” glucose, when metabolized by cancer cells, produced detectable deuterized lactate, overcoming the water signal interference.

Enhancing the sensitivity of this method, Frydman’s team developed advanced experimental and image-processing techniques, significantly improving the detection of deuterized lactate. The new MRI scans illuminated even the smallest tumors, while healthy tissues remained dark.

“Even if the cancer is not caught in time, deuterium MRI will help measure rates at which the glucose-to-lactate conversion happens. This could provide a crucial metric for predicting the usefulness of certain treatments, or even determining whether a treatment is working. This could establish deuterium MRI as a preferred method for diagnosing hard-to-identify pancreatic tumors and choosing the treatment that will generate the best prognosis,” Frydman said.

This breakthrough not only holds promise for earlier detection of pancreatic cancer but also offers hope for more effective treatments, potentially transforming the outlook for patients worldwide. Share this article to spread awareness of this innovative advancement, and subscribe to our newsletter for more updates on Israeli scientific achievements.