Cancer “sleeper cells” could be rooted out by a new scanning technique, scientists believe.
The imaging method uses a radioactive marker to spot cancer cells that have temporarily stopped growing while they store energy for future use.
Such dormant cells can be resistant to therapy and are often responsible for cancer recurring.
Lead scientist Professor Eric Aboagye, from Imperial College London, said: “The ability of cancer cells to escape treatment by entering these dormant states has stymied progress for the treatment of numerous different cancers.
“This technique has immediate potential in the clinic to assess how well drugs are working for patients, and to warn of potential relapses post-treatment.”
The scan was tested by using it to detect dormant cancer cells in mice.
Scientists used a type of scan called positron emission tomography (Pet) to measure the build-up of sugary energy stores in the sleeper cells.
A radioactive label attached to the sugar molecules allowed their take-up to be tracked by the scanner.
Up to now examining energy stores in cancer cells has required the surgical removal of tissue for analysis.
Details of the study are reported in the latest edition of the journal Cancer Research.
Nell Barrie, from the charity Cancer Research UK that funded the scientists, said: “This method shows real promise as a tool for telling doctors how much of the cancer could possibly be escaping treatment.
“At the moment this method has only been used in mice, but this sort of technique can be adapted for the clinic to help save more lives.”