Molecular Imaging and Tracer Development

Head and neck cancers account for approximately 3 to 5 percent of all cancers in the United States.

Most head and neck cancers begin in cells in the moist tissues that line the hollow organs and cavities of the mouth and nose, including the lips, tongue, gums, sinuses, naval cavity, pharynx and larynx.

Treatment of head and neck cancers includes surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy. New developments in molecular imaging technologies are dramatically improving the ways in which head and neck cancer is diagnosed and treated. Research in molecular imaging is also contributing to our understanding of the disease and directing more effective care of patients with head and neck cancer.

What is molecular imaging and how does it help people with head and neck cancers?

Molecular imaging is a type of medical imaging that provides detailed pictures of what is happening inside the body at the molecular and cellular level. Where other diagnostic imaging procedures—such as x-rays, computed tomography (CT) and ultrasound—predominantly offer anatomical pictures, molecular imaging allows physicians to see how the body is functioning and to measure its chemical and biological processes.

Molecular imaging offers unique insights into the human body that enable physicians to personalize patient care. In terms of diagnosis, molecular imaging is able to:

  • provide information that is unattainable with other imaging technologies or that would require more invasive procedures such as biopsy or surgery
  • identify disease in its earliest stages and determine the exact location of a tumor, often before symptoms occur or abnormalities can be detected with other diagnostic tests

As a tool for evaluating and managing the care of patients, molecular imaging studies help physicians:

  • determine the extent or severity of the disease, including whether it has spread elsewhere in the body
  • select the most effective therapy based on the unique biologic characteristics of the patient and the molecular properties of a tumor or other disease
  • determine a patient’s response to specific drugs
  • accurately assess the effectiveness of a treatment regimen
  • adapt treatment plans quickly in response to changes in cellular activity
  • assess disease progression
  • identify recurrence of disease and help manage ongoing care

Molecular imaging procedures are noninvasive, safe and painless.

How does molecular imaging work?

When disease occurs, the biochemical activity of cells begins to change. For example, cancer cells multiply at a much faster rate and are more active than normal cells. Brain cells affected by dementia consume less energy than normal brain cells. Heart cells deprived of adequate blood flow begin to die.

As disease progresses, this abnormal cellular activity begins to affect body tissue and structures, causing anatomical changes that may be seen on CT or MRI scans. For example, cancer cells may form a mass or tumor. With the loss of brain cells, overall brain volume may decrease or affected parts of the brain may appear different in density than the normal areas. Similarly, the heart muscle cells that are affected stop contracting and the overall heart function deteriorates.

Molecular imaging excels at detecting the cellular changes that occur early in the course of disease, often well before structural changes can be seen on CT and MR images.

Most molecular imaging procedures involve an imaging device and an imaging agent, or probe. A variety of imaging agents are used to visualize cellular activity, such as the chemical processes involved in metabolism, oxygen use or blood flow. In nuclear medicine, which is a branch of molecular imaging, the imaging agent is a radiotracer, a compound that includes a radioactive atom, or isotope. Other molecular imaging modalities, such as optical imaging and molecular ultrasound, use a variety of different agents. Magnetic resonance (MR) spectroscopy is able to measure chemical levels in the body, without the use of an imaging agent.

Once the imaging agent is introduced into the body, it accumulates in a target organ or attaches to specific cells. The imaging device detects the imaging agent and creates pictures that show how it is distributed in the body. This distribution pattern helps physicians discern how well organs and tissues are functioning.

What molecular imaging technologies are used for head and neck cancers?

The most commonly used molecular imaging procedure for diagnosing or guiding treatment of head and neck cancer is positron emission tomography (PET) scanning, which is often used in conjunction with computed tomography (CT) scanning.

How is PET used for head and neck cancers?

Physicians use PET and PET-CT studies to:

  • diagnose and stage: by determining the exact location of a tumor, the extent or stage of the disease and whether the cancer has spread in the body
  • plan treatment: by selecting the most effective therapy based on the unique molecular properties of the disease and of the patient’s genetic makeup
  • Evaluate the effectiveness of treatment: by determining the patient’s response to specific drugs and ongoing therapy. Based on changes in cellular activity observed on PET-CT images, treatment plans can be quickly altered
  • manage ongoing care: by detecting the recurrence of cancer

What are the advantages of PET for people with head and neck cancers?

  • PET scanning is the most significant advance in the staging of head and neck cancers in recent years
  • PET is a powerful tool for diagnosing and determining the stage of many types of head and neck cancers
  • PET and PET-CT scans prompt changes in the treatment of more than one-third of patients registered in the National Oncologic PET Registry (NOPR)
  • The National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) has incorporated PET-CT into the practice guidelines for most malignancies
  • By detecting whether lesions are benign or malignant, PET scans may eliminate the need for surgical biopsy or, if biopsy is necessary, identify the optimal biopsy location
  • PET scans help physicians choose the most appropriate treatment plan and assess whether chemotherapy or other treatments are working as intended
  • PET scans are currently the most effective means of detecting a recurrence of cancer

Molecular imaging technologies are also playing an important role in the development of:

  • screening tools, by providing a non-invasive and highly accurate way to assess at-risk populations
  • new and more effective drugs, by helping researchers quickly understand and assess new drug therapies
  • personalized medicine, in which medical treatment is based on a patient’s unique genetic profile

In the future, molecular imaging will include an increased use of:

  • fusion or hybrid imaging, in which two imaging technologies are combined to produce one image
  • optical imaging
  • new probes for imaging critical cancer processes
  • reporter-probe pairs that will facilitate molecular-genetic imaging
  • PET-CT to help administer more targeted radiation treatments