An Extra Test at an MRI Appointment Could Revolutionise Managing Cancer Risk

News - 11 Feb 2022

Spending just an extra 20 minutes in an MRI scanner could revolutionise the way that women at high risk of breast cancer are managed due to the ground-breaking research of Professor Carolyn Mountford. Her team has extended to a new collaboration with Griffith University’s Institute for Glycomics, accelerating the research closer to global impact.

The Institute for Glycomics is located at the heart of the Gold Coast Health and Knowledge Precinct, with close connections to the Lumina innovation hub. Bringing the research to Lumina is part of a two-fold plan for Professor Mountford: firstly, to establish a new capacity to serve patients with a risk for breast cancer and manage those with ovarian cancer, at the Gold Coast University Hospital. Secondly, to work with the experts at the Institute for Glycomics to develop future therapies for cancer and other illnesses.

World-firsts in cancer research are being developed and trialled on the Gold Coast

Professor Carolyn Mountford’s specialist research group is an extension of a team already working across Queensland hospitals and in Adelaide. They collaborate with partners at prestigious overseas universities and organisations, such as Harvard Medical School, where Professor Mountford also holds a position as Neuroscientist, having been full Professor of Radiology.

The Institute for Glycomics contributes key expertise to expand the research application of Professor Mountford’s work in Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy (MRS). “I have been watching the Institute for Glycomics for a long time; it is probably the best on the planet with what they’re doing in the areas of cancer detection and cancer risk, areas of research I have been studying for a very long time,” she explained.

Scanning technology can measure chemical signals to help determine cancer risk and diagnosis

Professor Mountford is a specialist in MRS. This technology works in parallel with an MRI scanner (Magnetic Resonance Imaging scanner) to measure the specific chemical composition of particular cells, focussing on key lipids and carbohydrate molecules called glycans. The MRS scans are non-invasive – safe and painless; it adds just an extra 20 minutes in an MRI scanner.

Glycomics is the study of glycans ­– carbohydrate (sugar) molecules – and the highly dynamic roles they play in our biology. They are essential biomolecules that are part of a cell’s structure and are very important in the communication between cells and neurons in the brain. Glycans are also incredibly sensitive – and the team has discovered that tiny changes in the molecules are present in certain health conditions and can be measured. So far, this list of health conditions has included breast, kidney, gastric and ovarian cancers. Interestingly, Professor Mountford’s team has also found measurable changes in glycans in the human brain associated with pain, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and other mental health conditions.

Professor Mountford has spent decades working to improve MRS technology and broaden its medical application in healthcare. Her team has successfully conducted clinical trials researching the impact of this technology in the study of risk for breast cancer in Queensland hospitals with real women, with ground-breaking results. Her research in this area is set to change the course of how we screen for breast cancer and has the potential to improve the management of ovarian cancer patients.

Ovarian cancer is very difficult to diagnose, but Professor Mountford hopes to bring change

For most women, ovarian cancer is first detected at an already advanced stage, when the chances of survival are not promising. According to current Australian Government statistics, the five-year survival rate of ovarian cancer is only 48% – compare this to the five-year survival rate for non-metastatic breast cancer at 90%.

There are two ways that MRS is being developed to assist ovarian cancer diagnosis.

The first use is that MRS can accurately diagnose an ovarian tumour as benign or malignant before surgery from just the scan, without the need for a biopsy.

“Our short-term goal is to provide the diagnosis of ovarian cancer before surgery. We already work closely with surgeons at some Queensland hospitals, where we have helped determine the best course of action for real patients using the MRS scan. It helps the surgeon to prepare before surgery knowing whether an ovarian mass is benign or malignant, and also helps the woman to have a better understanding and an expected outcome before having her surgery,” Professor Mountford said.

In the long-term Professor Mountford’s team has identified the presence of particular glycans released in the bloodstream by ovarian cells that are an early warning that a cancer is present. Once this blood test is possible the cancer can be identified in the scanner.

“We’re hoping if we can go live on the Gold Coast within 12 to 15 months, we will have the program fully operational in two years,” Professor Mountford said.

Changing the course of ‘when’ and ‘how’ all women can be screened for breast cancer risk

Professor Mountford’s team is also working to provide an early warning of breast cancer risk. This could revolutionise the breast cancer screening process, helping to identify patients at high risk, well before any mass is visible on a traditional mammogram.

“We can put a healthy patient in the scanner and use MRS to look for molecules that are signalling that potential for cancer. The end goal of this program is for healthy, young women to do this screening test as part of their general preventative health care.”

“While it can be used for all women, it is particularly beneficial for women with a genetic history of breast cancer, or those that carry BRACA1 and BRACA2 genes. For these women, it will give them more information to help them choose if they want to have a preventative mastectomy,” said Professor Mountford.

The ambition for the team and international collaborators is to make MRS technology available at regular MRI sites around the globe, backed up by cloud-based diagnostic power.

An innovation ecosystem is essential for knowledge sharing and advancing this technology into patient clinics

Translating research into the commercial world to make it available for patients in our health system is a complex process and one in which Professor Mountford has long experience.

She credits part of her team’s success to establishing long-term relationships with commercial and non-commercial organisations. One of those is a 20-year partnership with Siemens Healthineers to develop operating software that can be used by radiographers worldwide.

Different relationships and collaborations with clinicians, researchers, and organisations also led the team to develop new, ground-breaking applications, including in chronic pain and mental health conditions. These advances will lead to a better understanding of the neurobiological change in psychological conditions that can otherwise be very hard to measure and monitor. The US and Australian militaries have contracted Professor Mountford’s team to develop the technology further in chronic pain, (PTSD), and blast exposure.

It’s this approach to connection and collaboration that Professor Mountford recommends to other researchers and innovators to get the most out of a precinct like Lumina. Creating the community helps foster and support relationship building, knowledge sharing, networking, and mentorship opportunities – all important ingredients for transitioning research out of the lab and into patient settings.

“Innovation centres like Lumina are imperative for Australians to share their knowledge, their mistakes; the things that they’ve done right and wrong.  I’ve met people throughout my career who have stopped me from falling down holes. And the trick is to share that knowledge and make sure that others don’t go down those same holes unnecessarily.”

“Mentorship is really important. And there’s a great willingness out in the community. These people just have to be put in the same room or the same coffee area, or at the same meeting.”

Keeping world-first technology and scientific talent onshore through hubs like Lumina

Professor Mountford has seen the world of translational research change over the years and is excited by the role of Lumina in further progressing research innovation in Queensland.

“The hub on the Gold Coast is absolutely imperative. Commercialisation used to be just a buzzword, and we didn’t have enough specialised and experienced talent to support local start-up companies in Queensland. But those missing ingredients are no longer a problem. Now I’m seeing those holes being plugged by those returning from successful startups overseas, entrepreneurs, and supporting programs. We’re seeing universities adapting their technology transfer processes to simplify the process – so that their research knowledge is both disseminated and used in the world,” Professor Mountford said.

“We used to waste so much of our innovation or we lost it overseas. A hub like Lumina, that attracts a community and fosters collaboration plays an important part in turning that around.”

“The Precinct supports my passion to make sure important research does not get left on the laboratory bench, and it is made available worldwide.

 

Professor Mountford’s research team is conducting trials for the use of MRS in breast cancer screening. They are currently seeking healthy women in South East Queensland to take part in the study. To register, or for more information about the trial, please email: ClinicalMRI@griffith.edu.au