Is salt the key to accurate breast cancer diagnosis?

BioTechniques News
Georgia Bickerton

A new sodium MRI technique could be used for breast cancer diagnosis and monitoring.

Breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related death in women worldwide. An accurate diagnosis and close monitoring of tumors is vital to ensure that patients receive the best possible care. Researchers from the University of York and Cambridge University (UK) have discovered that salt levels can predict how active a tumor is.

In the study, the team developed a novel sodium MRI technique to detect the salt levels in breast cancer tumors in mice. Noticing that more active tumors had higher salt levels, they targeted some of the tumors with chemotherapy. Notably, they found that the tumors treated with chemotherapy had diminished salt levels after a week.

Senior author, William Brackenbury, explains: “We have known for a while that solid tumors are high in salt, but this research brings us a step closer to understanding why. Our findings show that the high levels of sodium in breast cancer tumors come from inside the cancer cells rather than the surrounding tissue fluid, meaning that there is something strange about their metabolic activity which leads to them accumulating more salt than healthy cells do.”

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These findings suggest that the sodium MRI technique could be used not only to diagnose breast cancer, but to also monitor how the cancer is responding to treatment. The authors are currently conducting an observational study to see if the results carry across to human cancer patients.

In addition, the study highlights the possibility of developing drugs that reduce salt levels by blocking sodium channels in breast cancer tumors. For example, previous research led by Brackenbury identified an epilepsy drug that targets sodium channels and could be repurposed to slow cancer progression.

Next, the team wishes to determine how to improve the resolution of the sodium MRI, as it currently produces pixelated images compared to normal MRI scans. The signal quality of the sodium MRI technique could be improved by new technologies such as new radiofrequency coils and associated cooling systems. Improving signal quality could allow the team to identify salt hotspots associated with highly active tumor growth.

“There are currently only a handful of sodium MRI scanners across the country, but our study paves the way for them to be used as a new technique for diagnosing breast cancer, monitoring the success of treatments and improving survival rates for patients,” concludes Brackenbury.

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