New PET scan hope for ‘tricky’ tumours

Photo: Dr Lauren Thurgood and Flinders Foundation funded PhD scholarship student Olivia Burling

“Groundbreaking” work out of Flinders is aiming to help doctors visualise ‘tricky’ tumours not visible on PET scans to help them make important cancer treatment decisions.

Thanks to generous support from the community, Flinders University cancer researcher Dr Lauren Thurgood has received a Flinders Foundation Health Seed Grant for her work to develop a new tool that can be used to take images of patients with a group of tumours that rely on fats – called lipids – to survive.

PET (positron emission tomography) scanning is widely used to diagnose cancer and monitor its progression before and after treatment. But at present PET scans can’t accurately identify all tumour types - only those that are reliant on the nutrient glucose for survival.

This is because a mildly radioactive glucose solution is injected prior to the scan, and cancer cells will absorb more of the solution than normal cells and show up brighter in the scan.

“Unfortunately, this means that ‘tricky tumours’ including several blood cancers, and some forms of prostate, liver and kidney cancer can’t be detected or monitored via conventional techniques like PET scans because they don’t appear to rely on glucose for survival,” Dr Thurgood explains.

Her team, which includes Flinders Foundation funded PhD scholarship student Olivia Burling, has a strong interest in chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL) - the most common type of leukaemia in Australia – but their work may also help improve the imaging of other cancer types.

“We’ve shown that CLL cells take up considerable amounts of lipids and our work will investigate whether we can design a new imaging tool that exploits this,” Dr Thurgood says.

“This project is unique, and this would be groundbreaking work, as doctors for the first time would be able to visualise these tumours and then use that information to make important treatment decisions.

“It may also prove to be a better tool to monitor disease progression in a much broader group of cancer patients.”

Dr Thurgood is one of 31 recipients of the latest Flinders Foundation Health Seed Grant Round awarded in collaboration with Flinders University to support health and medical research.


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