Researchers at Imperial College London report that their new nanoparticles make it possible for cancer to be visible in magnetic resonance imaging

Even as pathologists are working to develop more sensitive and accurate diagnostic tests for cancer, similar efforts are underway in radiology and imaging. In fact, one research team has developed a self-assembling nanoparticle that can adhere to cancer cells, thus making them visible in MRI scans and possibly eliminate the need for invasive tissue biopsies.

Clinical pathologists and medical laboratory managers will be interested in this research, which is being done at Imperial College London (Imperial). Researchers there have developed a self-assembling nanoparticle that targets cancer cells and makes them visible on magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans.

Could This Nanoparticle Technology Alter Pathology’s Role in Diagnosing Cancer?

The new nanoparticle improves MRI scanning efficacy by “specifically seeking out receptors that are found in cancerous cells,” noted an Imperial news release. Were this development to become a reality, it has the potential to alter anatomic pathology’s role in diagnosing cancer.

Currently, when radiologists use MRI scanning to image tissue, if they’re uncertain about the structure of a potential cancer, they turn to pathologists to do the lab testing necessary to help diagnose the patient. However, the research team believes that, by using these nanoparticles to enhance the MRI’s results, the need for certain pathology tests may become unnecessary.

Researchers point out that, by having nanoparticles work in vivo and in partnership with radiologists could make it feasible to eliminate the need for invasive biopsies. This would change the role of pathologists in these types of cancer cases.

The Imperial study also suggests that improved MRI sensitivity could pave the way to finding early-stage cancer. This would make it possible for doctors to diagnose small tumors faster and would ultimately increase survivor rates.

Researchers Motivated to Improve MRI Capabilities

The Imperial researchers published their study in Angewandte Chemie, the journal of the Gesellschaft Deutscher Chemiker (GDCH).

In the study abstract, the researchers noted that “MRI offers high spatial resolution with excellent tissue penetration, but it has limited sensitivity, and the commonly administered contrast agents lack specificity.”

These shortfalls motivated the research team to find a new way to improve the technology’s sensitivity. “Our aim is to help doctors spot something that might be cancerous much more quickly,” said Nicholas Long, Ph.D., senior author of the paper and a professor in Imperial’s Chemistry Department. “This would enable patients to receive effective treatments sooner, which would hopefully improve survival rates from cancer.

Nicholas J. Long, Ph.D.

Nicholas J. Long, Ph.D., (pictured above) is the Sir Edward Frankland BP professor of inorganic chemistry, and Head of the Catalysis, Sustainability, and Applied Inorganics Research Section. He is also senior author of a research study about a self-assembling nanoparticle that could improve MRI scanning for cancer diagnoses. (Photo copyright Imperial College London.)

Long and his team fashioned a nanoparticle that “actively seeks out cancer cells.” When it finds them it “automatically assembles itself into large clumps” that can more easily be seen on MRI scans, explained an article in Radiology Daily.

According to the Radiology Daily article:

  • “The nanoparticle is coated with a protein that seeks out tumors.
  • “Interaction with the cancerous cells strips off the protein.
  • The nanoparticles then “self-assemble, aggregating into larger particles that show up well under MRI.”

Researchers used cancer cells and mouse models to compare the effects of the self-assembling nanoparticle in MRI scanning with conventional imaging agents. They found the nanoparticle produced a more powerful signal and a clear MRI image of the tumor, the Imperial news release reported.

Human Trials and Further Research Planned

What is unknown is whether the nanoparticles are toxic to the body. The researchers plan to conduct human trials in three to five years to address that concern, and are working to reduce the size of the nanoparticles, which will make them less likely to be toxic.

“We’re now looking at fine-tuning the size of the final nanoparticle, so that it is even smaller but still gives an enhanced MRI image,” stated Juan Gallo, Ph.D., Department of Surgery and Cancer, Imperial. If it is too small, the body will just secrete it out before imaging. But too big, and it could be harmful to the body. Getting it just right is really important before moving to a human trial.”

Other improvements involve enhancing the signals sent by the nanoparticles to better alert radiologists and surgeons to the tumor site. “We’re now trying to add an extra optical signal so that the nanoparticle would light up with a luminescent probe—once it found its target. Combined with the better MRI signal, it will make it even easier to identify tumors,” Long said in the news release.

More research is needed before radiologists and surgeons can discern cancer without weighing in with pathologists. But this study is another example of different research groups are applying different technologies to cancer diagnostics. The work of these scientists may one day make it possible for patients to quickly access cancer treatments without need for invasive biopsy procedures.

—Donna Marie Pocius

Related Information:

Self-Assembling Nanoparticles Could Improve MRI Screening for Cancer Diagnosis 

CXCRY-Targeted and MMP-Responsive Iron Oxide Nanoparticles for Enhanced Magnetic Resonance Imaging

Clumping Nanoparticles Help MRI Find Small Tumors