Researchers at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center developed the assessment, which they call a functional diffusion map. They used a magnetic resonance imaging scan that tracks the diffusion, or movement, of water through the brain and mapped the changes in diffusion from the start of therapy to three weeks later. The tumor cells block the flow of water, so as those cells die, water diffusion changes.
In the study of 20 people with malignant brain tumors, the researchers found that any change in the functional diffusion map predicted 10 weeks before traditional techniques if the tumor was responding to the chemotherapy or radiation therapy. This has potential to spare patients from weeks of a grueling treatment regimen that's not working and gives doctors the opportunity to switch patients early on to a therapy that may be more effective.
Results of the study appear the week of March 28 in the early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Most primary brain tumors have a high mortality rate, with people surviving only 10 months after diagnosis. Typically, patients receive seven weeks of treatment, followed by a traditional MRI scan six weeks after completing therapy to determine if the tumor shrank. If the cancer did not respond to the treatment, a new approach may be tried.
Using diffusion MRI and the functional diffusion map, the U-M researchers were able to predict with 100 percent accuracy after only three weeks of treatment whether the therapy would be effective 10 weeks before traditional methods would show a response.
"This is an important issue in terms of patient quality of life. Do you want to go through seven weeks of treatment o