People concerned about the low risk of cancer from radiation exposure in CT scans may have just received good news this week from an article on by Kathleen Blanchard. Researchers at University College London discovered a new health benefit for ordinary sugar: its usefulness in detecting cancer.

This technique, called “glucose chemical exchange saturation transfer” (glucoCEST for short) would eradicate the radiation exposure and thus the cancer risk of CT and PET scans.

The science behind glucoCEST is that cancer cells expend more glucose than ordinary cells in the body.

“All that is needed to scan for cancer tumours is an injection of normal sugar,” said lead researcher Dr. Simon Walker-Samuel, from the UCL Centre for Advanced Biomedical Imaging (CABI). “GlucoCEST uses radio waves to magnetically label glucose in the body.”

The scientists tweaked MRI machines to be able to recognize sugar, then injected the same amount of sugar as found in half a bar of chocolate into mice subjects. The sugar illuminated tumors in more detailed imaging than previous diagnostic imaging has provided.

Prior to this research, there has not been a viable alternative to using CT Scans, PET Scans, or MRIs to identify or monitor tumors. There have been objections to these forms of imaging due to concerns that over time the exposure to radiation could put people at greater risk of contracting cancer.

The use of sugar as a detection tool eliminates this risk, as well as the increased risk in children and pregnant women and means scans can be performed more often, if necessary.

The greater detail in imaging glucose provides is another benefit, since it could allow for more precision in diagnosis, fewer additional tests needed for those cases where radiologists are unsure if they are seeing cancer or not, aid in the identification of the types of cancer that PET scans fail to recognize, and reduce the number of “false positives.”

The paper was published in Nature Medicine and can be accessed here.

In the words of Def Leppard, pour some sugar on me.