In preclinical trial, a new breast MRI contrast agent shows metastasis-prone cells at their earliest stage

Human trials are still a few years off, but a new contrast agent for early-detection breast MRI has come through biomedical imaging investigations in mice with flying colors.

The agent is gadolinium-based. It binds to molecular markers in high-risk primary tumors and metastases, nabbing aggressive breast cancer tumors and micrometastases of as small as a few hundred cells.

Led by Zheng-Rong Lu, PhD, of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, the team behind the research published their work online Aug. 12 in Nature Communications.

The researchers found the new agent, called CREKA-Tris(Gd-DOTA)3, highly capable in detecting, for example, bone micrometastasis with a diameter of less than 0.5 mm. Their preliminary blind analysis showed 83 percent overall sensitivity in the agent’s detection of these metastatic tumors.

The success suggests new avenues to explore for the clinical management of breast cancer and to treat micrometastases at an early stage, the authors write in their study report.

“The molecular MRI technique can also be used for breast cancer screening in high-risk patient populations, and for monitoring disease progression and therapeutic response,” they add. “Thus, molecular MRI with the small molecular peptide-targeted contrast agent holds great promise for clinical MR cancer molecular imaging.”

The work was funded by the NIH’s National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB).

A news release from the agency notes that one-third of patients diagnosed with breast cancer eventually develop metastases in distant organs, cutting their chances of survival.

“While multiple imaging techniques, including MRI, are currently used in breast cancer detection and clinical management, they are neither able to detect specific cancer types or early cancer growth,” states NIBIB.

Richard Conroy, PhD, director of applied science and technology at NIBIB, adds that the technique used by researchers in this study “enables very early detection of metastatic spread, which would allow adaptation of treatment more quickly and hopefully lead to better outcomes in the future.”

The researchers, whose affiliations also include Zhejiang University in China, expect to complete safety testing within three years and then pursue human trials.

They also plan to work on adapting their contrast agent for the detection of prostate and other cancers.

Click here to read the NIBIB release and here for the full study.