A new imaging technique may be able to detect cancers that have spread to the brain while they are still small.
The Oxford University study, carried out in mice, investigated a new 'dye' that shows up in MRI scans.
The scientists showed that the dye, or contrast agent, they have developed recognises and sticks to a molecule called VCAM-1. This molecule is present in large amounts on blood vessels associated with cancer that has spread to the brain from other parts of the body.
MRI scans show the distribution of the dye in the brain, enabling much smaller tumours to be detected than can be done using current techniques.
Cancer that has spread to the brain is extremely difficult to treat successfully.
Small tumours can be treated with whole brain radiotherapy or surgery, and there are new chemotherapy treatments in development. But currently, it is only possible to detect larger secondary brain tumours, and these are more difficult to treat.
Lead researcher Dr Nicola Sibson of the Gray Institute for Radiation Oncology and Biology at the University of Oxford said: 'We urgently need to find ways to diagnose these cancers at an earlier stage to improve survival rates. Our research suggests a new possible approach to do just this. The next stage is to build on these results and carry out clinical trials. If successful, we hope that early detection using this technique could increase the number of available treatment options for these patients.'
The research was funded by Cancer Research UK and the Wellcome Trust, with support from the National Institute for Health Research-funded Oxford Biomedical Research Centre.
Dr Julie Sharp, Cancer Research UK’s senior science information manager, said: 'This exciting discovery reveals that a single protein could enable doctors to literally paint a picture with a medical dye to detect cancer that has spread to the brain, at a very early stage, when treatment has a greater chance of being successful.'