Cancer: New diagnostic method makes tumor cells visible using oxygen

Cancer: New diagnostic method makes tumor cells visible using oxygen

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Make tumor tissue visible using a new method

A German research team developed a new diagnostic method that can be used to better identify tumors in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The researchers use the metabolism of the tumor cells to make them visible using oxygen.

Scientists at the German Cancer Research Center are presenting a new technique for the detection of brain tumors. Since tumor cells differ significantly in their metabolism from healthy tissue, they can be visualized with oxygen on MRI. The results were recently presented in the specialist journal "Radiology".

The Warburg effect for cancer detection

As the German doctor and biochemist Otto Heinrich Warburg recognized in the 1920s, tumor cells accumulate lactic acid. This is a result of the anaerobic metabolism of the cancer cells. Even if enough oxygen is available, there is no metabolism with oxygen in the cancer cells. This peculiarity in metabolism is known as the Warburg effect. The researchers at the German Cancer Research Center used this anomaly to improve imaging MRI scans for tumor detection.

Improved MRI scans

The Warburg effect in the metabolism of the tumor cells now enables a completely new imaging technique. The new technology gives hope to improve the diagnosis and characterization of brain tumors. "We asked ourselves whether this special feature can be made visible on MRI," explains doctor and physicist Daniel Paech from the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) in Heidelberg. Until now, conventional MRI examinations have only revealed structural changes.

This is how the new process works

The research team used stable, non-radioactive oxygen (17O2), which is also found in small quantities in the air we breathe. The participants in the study inhaled this oxygen variant in an enriched form. This was then metabolized in the body. This oxygen conversion can be visualized on MRI: tissues that convert a lot of oxygen appeared brighter in the image on MRI.

Tumors appeared as dark spots

The method was tested on three healthy volunteers and ten participants with brain tumors. As expected, the brains appeared brighter in the imaging due to the high oxygen conversion. Since the cancer cells did not convert oxygen, they could be identified. "The result was really impressive: The tumors appeared in the picture as dark spots because there was no metabolism with oxygen," reports Paech.

New Findings About Brain Tumors

"We were surprised that this was the case for both higher-grade aggressive tumors and less aggressive, low-grade tumors," emphasizes Paech. Until now it was not known whether the Warburg effect also played a role in low-grade brain tumors.

"We see the procedure as a supplement to structural MRI imaging to identify differences between tumor and healthy tissue," explains Paech. In addition, the additional information obtained in this way could help to characterize tumors more precisely. At the same time, an improved diagnosis and a new research basis are available.

There is still a catch

Before the new MRI procedure can be used on a larger scale, one problem still has to be solved: The production of the oxygen variant 1702 is currently extremely expensive. Production costs would decrease significantly if a method were developed that would allow the molecule to be produced on a larger scale. (vb)

Author and source information

This text corresponds to the requirements of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.

Graduate editor (FH) Volker Blasek


  • German Cancer Research Center: Making cancer visible with oxygen (published: February 18, 2020),
  • Daniel Paech, Armin M. Nagel, Miriam N. Schultheiss, et al .: Quantitative dynamic oxygen-17 MRI at 7-T for cerebral oxygen metabolism in glioma; in: Radiology, 2020,

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