Brain Scans Beat Biopsy Any Day

Glioma diagnosis and tracking with magnetic resonance spectroscopy

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) An old saying in the operating room is "Once the air hits your brain, you're never the same." Despite the risks, taking a biopsy from a brain tumor is a necessary procedure. But, a new brain scan could change cancer diagnosis entirely.

One of the ways cancer develops is mutations in genes, which can cause odd proteins to be made.

Scientists have developed a way to use an MRI to scan the brain for the build up of these misshapen proteins in one type of brain cancer, glioma, thereby avoiding the risks of surgery.

"Ask your oncologist about Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy."

In a study published in Nature Medicine, a team from The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center led by Changho Choi, Ph.D., has successfully altered a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine to track levels of a protein known as 2HG.

This new technique, known as magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) has allowed them to track the progress, size and type of the tumor, resulting in instant feedback on the effectiveness of treatments.

In the study, 30 patients with prior brain biopsy samples available were analyzed for the genetic mutation. The 15 glioma patients with the mutation were scanned with the MRS machine, and all of the tumors were clearly identified on the scan based on protein levels alone.

“Our next step is to make this testing procedure widely available as part of routine MRIs for brain tumors. It doesn’t require any injections or special equipment,” said Elizabeth Maher, M.D., Ph.D., and medical director of UT Southwestern’s neuro-oncology program.

The specific mutation the MRS tracks is present in 80 percent of glioma patients. Further research may result in specialized scans for other mutations.

The average cost of a brain MRI is between $2,000-$3,000, and are already part of the current standard of care for brain cancer patients. Widespread use of this technique in the future would avoid the risks of brain biopsy in suitable glioma patients.

Brain biopsy is a minor operation with complications in about 1 in 100 patients.  

The research was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health, the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, with financial support from the Annette G. Strauss Center for Neuro-oncology at UT Southwestern.

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Review Date: 
January 28, 2012
Last Updated:
January 30, 2012