Modern imaging methods have the ability to accurately detect tumors, but differentiating benign tumors from malignant ones requires a biopsy. During a biopsy, cells are taken for study directly, which is time consuming and invasive.

Now, researchers from Johns Hopkins have shown that a novel MRI technique may be more effective and accurate than standard biopsies and doesn’t require contrast agents. The technique takes advantage of the nature of cancer cells to expel sugar molecules from their outer membranes. Although this technique to date hasn’t been tested on humans, there will surely be tests done in the near future. Results from a study done on mice have been published in the online journal Nature Communications.

"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" says Jeff Bulte, Ph.D., professor of radiology and radiological science in the Institute for Cell Engineering at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Further research is necessary, but researchers suggest the MRI technique could be potentially used for early cancer detection, measuring response to chemotherapy, and as a tool for guiding biopsies to ensure accurate results.