PET tracer detects various forms of cancer, lung disease

A new PET tracer developed by Stanford University scientists showed promise detecting many forms of cancer, and at least one type of lung disease.

The radiotracer—a cystine knot peptide—attaches to a specific protein called integrin alpha-v beta-6, which protrudes from the surface of pancreatic cancer cells. Results from a study published Oct. 14 in Nature Communications showed it could identify pancreatic, cervical and lung cancer, in addition to a lung tissue disease called idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF).

"We didn't intend for our tracer to have multiple functions," Sanjiv Gambhir, MD, PhD, professor and chair of radiology at Stanford, told a university-run publication. "At that time we had no idea that levels of alpha-v beta-6 may also be elevated in lung diseases such as IPF.”

As part of the study, Gambhir et al. conducted a clinical trial to test the radiotracers’ effectiveness in healthy patients and a small cohort who had either cancer or IPF. The results showed PET tracer accumulation was “rapid, high and sustained” compared to healthy tissue.

One participant in the study, who was thought to be healthy, inadvertently offered insight into the potential for the tracer to identify pulmonary fibrosis.  

"There are known risk factors for pulmonary fibrosis that elevate your chances of developing the disease—things like coming into close, repeated contact with bird/animal droppings or environmental exposures like coal mines and silica dust," Gambhir added. "This participant worked closely with birds for her job, and through our tracer, we did see some signs of what looked to be increased tracer uptake which might be indicative of early pulmonary fibrosis."

While the pilot study was limited primarily by its small cohort of cancer patients, the team is actively recruiting more participants to better evaluate the effectiveness in other cancers, such as ovarian, head and neck.