Canadian researchers develop new type of MRI that makes cancer easier to detect

Tested on people with prostate cancer, the technique increases the chances of earlier diagnosis.

Dave Yasvinski 3 minute read March 23, 2022
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Prostate cancer is the fourth most common cancer in Canada, with an estimated 23,300 people receiving a diagnosis in 2020, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. GETTY

Researchers at the University of Waterloo have developed a new form of magnetic resonance imaging that makes cancerous tissue easier to detect by causing it to glow in comparison to healthy tissue.

The new technology, known as synthetic correlated diffusion imaging, was tested on a cohort of 200 patients with prostate cancer at several Toronto hospitals in cooperation with the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research and the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute. The study, which was published in the journal Scientific Reports, found the new technique to be better at delineating significant cancerous tissues than a standard MRI. It also identified fewer false positive regions compared to other techniques. However, it will be necessary to replicate the results of the study through further research before the technique can be adopted for routine clinical use.

“Our studies show this new technology has promising potential to improve cancer screening, prognosis and treatment planning,” said Alexander Wong, Canada Research Chair in Artificial Intelligence and Medical Imaging and a professor of systems design engineering at Waterloo.

“Second most common cancer in men worldwide”

The irregular packing of cells in the body results in differences between the way water molecules move through cancerous tissue relative to healthy tissue. Synthetic correlation diffusion imaging capitalizes on these differences by synthesizing and mixing MRI signals at different gradient pulse strengths and timings to effectively illuminate any cancerous tissue.

“Prostate cancer is the second most common cancer in men worldwide and the most frequently diagnosed cancer among men in more developed countries,” said Wong, who is also a director of the Vision and Image Processing (VIP) Lab at Waterloo. “That’s why we targeted it first in our research.”

Prostate cancer is the fourth most common cancer in Canada, with an estimated 23,300 people receiving a diagnosis in 2020, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. Roughly one in nine Canadian men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer at some point in their lives, with 99 per cent of cases occurring in men over the age of 50. While the overall five-year survival rate for prostate cancer is very high — at 93 per cent in Canada — this prognosis drastically worsens if the cancer metastases outside the prostate. As such, early detection is a priority.

Given the encouraging results, the team intends to apply synthetic correlation diffusion imaging to the search for other cancers, including gastric cancer and glioblastoma. “We also have very promising results for breast cancer screening, detection and treatment planning,” Wong said.

“This could be a game-changer for many kinds of cancer imaging and clinical decision support.”

Dave Yasvinski is a writer with Healthing.ca

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