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Scanning for Cancer and Atherosclerosis
March 1, 2013   
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A new electron paramagnetic resonance imaging (EPRI) scanner developed and built at the Poznań University of Technology in western Poland will make it possible to instantly locate areas in the body affected by cancer and atherosclerosis. It will also allow doctors to thoroughly evaluate the patient’s condition prior to treatment.

The scanner has been developed as part of a project that involved four years of research subsidized with zl.8.7 million from funds available under the European Union’s Innovative Economy Program. The innovative scanner is currently at the prototype stage.

“What is innovative about our invention is the technique, which makes it possible to obtain images of oxygen concentration in the patient’s blood in 3D in a simple way, within a few seconds, and thus obtain images of areas in the body affected by cancer,” says Prof. Jan Jurga, coordinator of the project and head of the team of inventors from the EPRI Laboratory of the Institute of Materials Technology in Poznań.

Oxygen concentration is a significant parameter, not only in detecting cancer, but also in planning and applying appropriate treatment.

The possibility of imaging oxygen concentration is a major step forward in comparison with other diagnostic techniques such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computed tomography (CT).

The strong points of EPRI include its high sensitivity to changes in oxygen concentration and much lower costs of medical examination due to the fact that the device works at low-frequency magnetic fields and uses radio-wave frequencies. Thus the patient can be examined many times with this scanner. The technique is safe for the patient as well as the environment, and its operating costs are low.

Alongside Jurga, a number of other researchers are taking part in the project. Among them are Prof. Eugeniusz Szcze¶niak and Tomasz Czechowski, the originator and designer of the main frame of the scanner. The research team also includes WiesławPrukała, MikołajBaranowski, WojciechChlewicki, PiotrKędzia, MarekSzostak, StanisławWosiński, PiotrSzczepanik, PiotrSzulc, and Paweł Malinowski. The team is made up of specialists in various fields of science and technology—physics, mathematics, chemistry, materials science, engineering, and computer science.

“As soon as a tumor is detected, the patient needs to undergo an appropriate therapy,” says Czechowski. Using any kind of treatment requires the doctor to know specific values of oxygen concentration around the tumor. If the concentration is below a certain level, healthy cells are destroyed instead of the tumor, which then become less responsive to treatment. But if oxygen concentration is above a specific level, the treatment will be much more effective. This indicator helps doctors plan a course of treatment in an optimal way with less of a burden on the patient.

According to Jurga, the essence of this method is that it identifies free radicals—mostly oxygen free radicals—scattered around the human body and with a lifetime much shorter than a millionth of a second. To catch these radicals, it is necessary to introduce another radical, a so-called marker, into the body in a liquid form and highly sensitive to oxygen ions—thanks to which it can be immediately registered, in both the bloodstream and the cells.

In areas affected by cancer, the oxygen concentration is lower, as the tumor feeds on the oxygen in order to be able to grow. In this way, it is possible to observe the trouble spots and see how big they are.

The method developed by the Polish scientists makes it possible to precisely determine the concentration of oxygen ions in a non-invasive way. The EPRI method can be used in both early cancer detection and for evaluating the effectiveness of treatment.

For the time being, the size of the scanner is adapted to examining mice and rats. However, in the future the researchers plan to design a larger scanner that would allow them to diagnose people. It would make it possible to determine in a non-invasive way if the patient should get either the green or red light for a particular type of treatment and how he or she is responding to it.

“As a technical university, we assumed in the course of planning the project that we would carry out tests on phantoms, which means appropriately prepared chemical samples. Such samples make it possible to perform all the tests for the device using signals similar to those registered in living organisms,” says Jurga, adding that the new technique is based on examining the physical properties of the markers introduced into the body. These properties do not depend on the type of cancer, Jurga says.

The innovative EPRI scanner will also be helpful in treating heart patients. The signals which can be detected by scientists last only for a few millionths of a second. This means that a second is enough to obtain a mass of information. On the basis of this data, an image with a resolution of a fraction of a millimeter is possible; using 3D technology, it can accurately map the shape of the circulatory system, for example. Thanks to such images, doctors can easily examine changes in the diameter of blood vessels, for instance.

The invention is at the prototype stage, and its resolution has yet to be tested, the researchers say. And only after such tests will it be possible to determine whether the method can be useful for cardiologists. Still, it is already known that it is possible to obtain images of narrowings and deformations in blood vessels.

Jurga says that his team is ready to design larger devices with dimensions adapted to examining humans. If there is enough money to continue with the project, engineers can set about building such a system, he says. They will need about five years. The four-year research stage of the project, financed under the Innovative Economy program, is due to end later this year.
Karolina Olszewska

Factfile

The EPRI detection method and the device have won a gold medal at the Brussels Innova international exhibition of inventions last year. The invention also grabbed a gold medal at the 4th International Warsaw Innovation Show (IWIS) in 2010 and a bronze medal at the 111th Concours-Lepine International Exhibition of Innovation in Paris last year.
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