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Can a new type of MRI scan help to see how well radiotherapy works for mesothelioma and other asbestos-related lung cancers?

05 May 2016

A study run by Cancer Research UK has looked at how effectively a new type of MRI scan can help doctors to see how well lung tissue, not affected by cancer, is working.

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What is an MRI scan?

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is a type of scan that uses magnetic fields and radio waves to produce detailed images of the inside of the body.

An MRI scan can be used to examine almost any part of the body, including the:

  • brain and spinal cord
  • bones and joints
  • breasts
  • heart and blood vessels
  • internal organs, such as the liver, womb or lungs

The results of an MRI scan can be used to help diagnose conditions, plan treatments and assess how effective previous treatment has been.

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Planning radiotherapy

When planning radiotherapy for people with lung cancer, doctors try to avoid as much healthy lung tissue as possible. This can often be difficult, as scans do not differentiate healthy lung tissue from cancerous lung tissue very clearly. If a large dose of radiotherapy is given, there is a risk of inflammation of the lungs, which can lead to dry coughs and shortness of breath. When this occurs, it is known as “radiation pneumonitis”.

Helium 3 MRI

In this study, researchers looked at a new type of scan technique called “Helium 3 MRI” which helps doctors to see healthy lung tissue.

The new scan is similar to a regular MRI scan, but works in a slightly different way.

Helium 3 MRIs involve the patient breathing in a gas called Helium 3. The areas of the lung that the helium can reach will then show up on the scan. From this, doctors can see which parts of the lungs are still healthy and working so they know where to try and reduce the doses of radiation when they plan radiotherapy treatments.

Researchers have also compared information from these Helium 3 MRI scans with normal MRI scans, CT scans and various breathing tests.

The main objectives of the study were to see if Helium 3 MRI scans could:

  • help to reduce radiation to healthy lung tissue, reducing occurrences of radiation pneumonitis
  • show doctors how well patients’ lungs are working before and after treatments
  • test whether new types of MRI scans are better at showing lung cancer than a standard MRI scan

Image courtesy of ponsulak at

Trial results

Results from this study showed that a Helium 3 MRI scan does in fact give information that helps when planning radiotherapy and when looking at how well the patients’ treatment has worked.

The results and experience gained from doing this study has meant that researchers could look into further studies involving breathing in other gases before having an MRI scan, and build upon what they already know. One such study taking place uses a different type of gas, xenon-129.

Helium 3 MRI and mesothelioma and other asbestos-related lung cancers

The study suggests that it possible for doctors to obtain information about how effectively treatments are working on sufferers of mesothelioma (a type of lung cancer caused in the majority of cases by asbestos) and asbestos-related lung cancer. This could potentially have a great impact on the treatment of asbestos-related lung cancers, which are notoriously difficult to treat.

Asbestos-related lung cancers are very aggressive, so insight into a patient’s progress under treatment will be immensely beneficial.  It could allow doctors to tailor radiotherapy doses and frequency to the patient’s personal limits and needs. The treatment could be made more effective with increased doses, in the knowledge that healthy lung tissue would not be damaged.

Further reading

Cancer Research UK

What is mesothelioma?

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