The first patient cancer patient in Europe has been scanned with a revolutionary imaging technique being trialled in the UK that could enable doctors to determine whether a drug is working within days of starting treatment.

Cancer Research UK-funded scientists are aiming to scan patients with a wide range of cancer types at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, part of Cambridge University Hospitals, to investigate whether the new metabolic imaging approach could show whether treatment is working and thus give patients the chance to try different options much earlier if necessary.

According to the charity, the rapid scan will allow doctors to map out molecular changes in patients, opening up potential new ways to detect cancer and monitor the effects of treatment, in a highly personalised approach that could improve care and outcomes.

The new technique involves labelling a breakdown product of glucose - pyruvate - to make it highly visible in a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan. This is injected into the patient and tracked as the molecule moves around the body and enters cells. The scan then monitors the speed at which cancer cells break pyruvate down, an indication of their activity that can also be used to determine whether a drug has been effective at killing them.

“We’re very excited to be the first group outside North America, and the third group world-wide, to test this with patients and we hope that it will soon help improve treatment by putting to an end patients being given treatments that aren’t working for them,” noted Professor Kevin Brindle, co-lead based at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute. “Each person’s cancer is different and this technique could help us tailor a patient’s treatment more quickly than before.”

“Finding out early on whether cancer is responding to therapy could save patients months of treatment that isn’t working for them,” added Dr Emma Smith, Cancer Research UK’s science information manager. “The next steps for this study will be collecting and analysing the results to find out if this imaging technology provides an accurate early snapshot of how well drugs destroy tumours.”