UNC-TV Science: Imaging Cancer

UNC-TV Science: February 3, 2014
UNC Doctors Develop New Technique to Image Cancer

One hundred fifty years ago, if a doctor wanted to see what was going on inside your body, he had one tool: a scalpel. Now, we can use X-rays, high frequency sound, magnets and even radioactive tracers that rush through our bodies to check out everything from broken bones to brain activity to how molecules act in our bodies.

When it comes to imaging tumors, the best tools we have are MRIs and CT scans. But these two techniques are expensive, and CT scans expose the body to high levels of radiation, which can be unhealthy if done too often. Ultrasounds are much cheaper, and so safe that doctors rely on them to look at unborn babies, but the problem with ultrasounds is the picture isn’t hi-res enough to get a good picture of temperature.

Enter Paul Dayton and Dr. Nancy Klauber-Demore. They recently developed a new technique that increases the resolution of ultrasound enough to be used in imaging cancer. Their paper on the work appeared in the journal PLOS ONE.

Dayton and Klauber-Demore worked with a specific cancer called angiosarcoma, which develops on the walls of blood vessel and has a penchant for spreading rapidly. Angiosarcoma produces extra secreted frizzled related protein (SFRP2), much more than normal cells.

So Dayton and Klauber-Demore developed an antibody that attaches to SFRP2 and attaches it to a microbubble, both of which act as contrast agents in ultrasounds making signals brighter and easier to see. They injected the SFRP2 antibody-microbubble mix into mice with angiosarcoma and found that they could see tumors 60% better than with a plain microbubble contrast. Tumors also grow their own blood vessels, which the SFRP2 technique was able to image while ignoring the non-cancerous blood vessels.

Angiosarcoma isn’t the only cancer with elevated SFRP2, either. Breast, colon, pancreas, ovarian and kidney tumors all have more SFRP2 than normal cells, so this technique may be useful in imaging these cancers as well. Cancers may also develop more SFRP2 as they grow so it may be possible to track tumor growth with this method as well.

This technology still has to go through human trials before it can be introduced into clinical treatment, but it might offer a cheaper, safer method of imaging tumors.

- Daniel Lane

Daniel Lane covers science, medicine and the environment as a reporter/writer. He is currently pursuing a master's degree in medical and science journalism at UNC - Chapel Hill.