A study conducted by scientists from the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) in London, UK, has suggested that an MRI scan used for heart disease could also detect aggressive cancers in children.

According to the study, the T1-mapping MRI imaging technique has the potential to spot children with high-risk forms of neuroblastoma, a type of childhood tumour.

Typically, T1 mapping scan is used in heart disease to assess damage to heart muscle tissue. It evaluates the cellular make-up of tissue by measuring how water molecules interact at a microscopic level inside cells.

The researchers believe that this non-invasive scanning technique could also offer early warning of how effective targeted treatments are likely to be and could improve the use of precision medicine in children with neuroblastoma.

They also noted that the scan could also potentially be used more widely with other cancer patients, by ensuring treatments suited for each patient and by immediately stopping when they are not working.

For the study, the team used T1 mapping in mice with an aggressive form of neuroblastoma to understand the microscopic and physical characteristics of the tumour.

Using artificial intelligence (AI), the team then mapped different cell populations in tumours and compared these maps with those generated using T1 mapping MRI scans.

The researchers also analysed whether the imaging technique could help in assessing how mice with neuroblastoma would respond to two targeted drugs, alisertib and vistusertib.

These drugs are said to target MYCN, a key protein related to aggressive forms of the disease.

The study found that when alisertib and vistusertib successfully stopped the growth of tumours in mice, there was a decrease in T1 measures. This suggests that T1 measures could be used as a biomarker.

The Institute of Cancer Research London chief executive professor Paul Workman said: “It’s exciting that we’ve shown that a scan widely used to image the heart has the potential to greatly improve our understanding and treatment of cancer too.

“It’s vital that we find ways to improve treatments for aggressive childhood cancers like neuroblastoma, and also that we spare children unnecessary side effects by minimising exposure to drugs that do not seem to be working.”

The researchers at the ICR are planning to assess the clinical benefit of T1 mapping as part of a clinical study involving children next.