Cancer researchers have issued a plea for state-of-the-art imaging technologies to be used routinely in clinical trials of new anti-cancer drugs, arguing that the studies would be performed more quickly, effectively and economically.

Too many trials fail to make use of techniques such as magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) and positron emission tomography (PET), and so miss out on vital information about the effects of the drugs being tested.

A review on the issue, written by a Cancer Research UK advisory committee, has been published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

The authors want to see more funding for the development of ways to make the most of these imaging tools, and to help routinely incorporate them in the design of early clinical trials in order to improve the speed and quality of drug development.

“Clinical trials of new cancer drugs should ideally include measurements of parameters such as molecular target expression, pharmacokinetic (PK) behavior, and pharmacodynamic (PD) endpoints that can be linked to measures of clinical effect,” say the authors, led by Professor Paul Workman, of Cancer Research UK’s Centre for Cancer Therapeutics at The Institute of Cancer Research.

“A fundamental part of clinical trials is that they should measure how drugs move through the body and what effects they have. Advances in technologies such as MRS and PET can improve how we monitor drugs, and can also reduce the need for invasive procedures such as biopsies.”

For example, the techniques can be used to help select the best dose and schedule of a druge, help clinicians decide whether to continue or terminate a drug development project, and explain or predict clinical outcomes.

“MRS and PET are increasingly available to researchers, allowing us to see inside cancer cells in the body. We need to ensure that we all make the best use of these technologies, which can often provide more detailed information than the alternatives.”

PET and MRS have the advantage that they reduce the need for taking blood samples and tissue biopsies, although invasive techniques will always remain a crucial part of the monitoring process.

Harpal Kumar, chief operating officer of Cancer Research UK, said: “we plan to invest more in both equipment and specialists over the next few years to provide our institutes and clinical centres with the resources they need to accelerate drug development.

“This is just one aspect of how we plan to keep the UK at the forefront of cancer drug development.”