New kind of scan finds cancer's sleeper cells

03 March 2014

A radioactive tracer reveals dormant cancer cells by highlighting energy stores called glycogen.

Image: A radioactive tracer reveals dormant cancer cells by highlighting energy stores called glycogen.

Researchers at Imperial College London have developed a new imaging technique that lights up cancer's sleeper cells, warning patients and doctors of a potential relapse.

The study shows that the non-invasive scan can detect dormant cancer cells in mice.

Most cancer treatments work by targeting fast-growing cells. Dormant cells can be resistant to therapy and are often responsible for cancers coming back.

Professor Eric Aboagye from Imperial said: "The ability of cancer cells to escape treatment by entering these dormant states has stymied progress for the treatment of numerous different cancers. This technique has immediate potential in the clinic to assess how well drugs are working for patients, and to warn of potential relapses post-treatment."

In the sleeping state, cancer cells stop growing and instead store energy for future use. The researchers used positron emission tomography (PET) scans to measure the buildup of these energy stores, revealing the dormant cells.

Previous methods to examine energy stores in cancer cells all required invasive techniques that could only sample a small section of the tumour.

Nell Barrie, Cancer Research UK's senior science communications manager, said: "This method shows real promise as a tool for telling doctors how much of the cancer could possibly be escaping treatment. At the moment this method has only been used in mice, but this sort of technique can be adapted for the clinic to help save more lives."

The paper, A novel radiotracer to image glycogen metabolism in tumors by positron emission tomography, is published in Cancer Research.

  • A new non-invasive imaging technique can detect dormant cancer cells, warning patients and doctors of a potential relapse. 
  • The positron emission tomography (PET) scan measures the buildup of energy stored by dormant cancer cells. Previous methods to examine energy stores in cancer cells all required invasive techniques. 
  • The research was funded by Cancer Research UK.