Hopkins Study Suggests Non-Dye-Based MRI Analysis of Cell-Surface Sugar Molecules Can Differentiate Cancer and Non-Cancer Cells

Imaging tests like mammograms or CT scans can detect tumors, but figuring out whether a growth is or isn't cancer usually requires a biopsy to study cells directly. Now results of a Johns Hopkins study suggest that MRI could one day make biopsies more effective or even replace them altogether by noninvasively detecting telltale sugar molecules shed by the outer membranes of cancerous cells. The MRI technique, so far tested only in test-tube-grown cells and mice, is described in a report published online on March 27, 2015 in an open-access article in Nature Communications. The article is titled “Label-Free in vivo Molecular Imaging of Underglycosylated Mucin-1 Expression in Tumor Cells.” "We think this is the first time scientists have found a use in imaging cellular slime," says Jeff Bulte, Ph.D., a Professor of Radiology and Radiological Science in the Institute for Cell Engineering at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. "As cells become cancerous, some proteins on their outer membranes shed sugar molecules and become less slimy, perhaps because they're crowded closer together. If we tune the MRI to detect sugars attached to a particular protein, we can see the difference between normal and cancerous cells." Dr. Bulte's research builds on recent findings by others that indicate glucose can be detected by a fine-tuned MRI technique based on the unique way it interacts with surrounding water molecules without administering dyes. Other researchers have used MRI, but needed injectable dyes to image proteins on the outside of cells that lost their sugar. In this study, Dr. Bulte's research team compared MRI readings from proteins known as mucins, with and without sugars attached, to see how the signal changed.
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