Sugar could become an effective replacement for metal in contrast agents in magnetic resonance tomography analyses, according to researchers from John Hopkins University and Lund University in Sweden.

There has been heated debate over the safety of certain contrast agents, and the Food and Drug Administration has warned that gadolinium-based contrast agents (GBCAs) can linger in the brain for months or years after the patient’s procedure. Using alternatives like sugar could potentially diminish the risk of adverse side effects associated with GBCAs. Studies using animals demonstrated that D-glucose could be a possible biodegradable MRI contrast agent for examining glucose intake in tumors. Associate professor of medical radiation physics, Linda Knutsson, PhD, and her colleagues at JHU figured out that a tumor can be studied by injecting a tiny bit of sugar into it and measuring how much the tumor absorbs. The degree of malignancy of the tumor is determined by how much sugar it consumes.

The researchers initially tested the sugar agent on three volunteers with brain tumors and four healthy individuals. “These preliminary results suggest that DGE MRI is feasible to study glucose uptake in humans,” wrote the study authors. “Providing a time-dependent set of data that contains information regarding arterial input function (AIF), tissue perfusion, glucose transport across the BBB and cell membrane, and glucose metabolism.” Unfortunately, sugar-based agents can’t be used with diabetes patients.

“Metal-based contrast agents cost more than sugar-based agents. Accordingly, this could lead to a reduction in medical care costs,” said Dr. Knutsson. Their findings were published in Tomography, and they’re continuing to study the practice.