Using MRI, Johns Hopkins researchers developed a cancer detection method that does not rely on injected contrast dyes. The technique noninvasively finds telltale sugar molecules shed by the outer membranes of cancerous cells.

The research builds on previous studies that indicate that glucose can be detected by a fine-tuned MRI technique, based on the unique way glucose interacts with surrounding water molecules.

Other researchers have used MRI but needed injectable dyes to image proteins on the outside of cells that lost their sugar. In the Johns Hopkins study, the researchers compared MRI readings from proteins, known as mucins, with and without sugars attached.

The team then searched for that signal in four types of lab-grown cancer cells, detecting markedly lower levels of mucin-attached sugars than in normal cells.

“The advantage of detecting a molecule already inside the body is that we can potentially image the entire tumor,” said Xiaolei Song, Ph.D., lead author on the study. “This often isn’t possible with injected dyes because they only reach part of the tumor."

The team’s next step will be to see if it can distinguish more types of cancerous tumors from benign masses in live mice.