Finding better and more personalized ways to diagnose cancer at NIH

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Cancer treatment is constantly evolving and so are the detection tools that help diagnose it.

The National Cancer Institute’s (NCI) Cancer Diagnosis Program focuses on creating newer and better tools to detect and diagnose cancer.

The program supports research at medical centers, hospitals, businesses, and universities throughout the U.S. It provides resources and research for the development of new detection technologies. This helps improve medical decision-making and patient treatment.

Detecting cancer

If you have symptoms or a screening test that suggest cancer, your health care provider will dig deeper.

Before using imaging and other diagnostic tools, he or she will first ask about personal and family medical history and do a physical exam. Additionally, your provider may have you do a lab test.

Lab tests

High or low levels of certain substances in your body can be a sign of cancer. Blood, urine, and other lab tests measure these substances to help doctors make a diagnosis.

However, abnormal lab results are not a sure sign of cancer. Lab tests are an important tool, but doctors cannot rely on them alone to diagnose cancer.

That’s where diagnostic tools, such as imaging, come in.

Diagnostic tools

A promising field of cancer research explores imaging technologies, which take pictures inside the body and help diagnose some trickier cases of cancer.

Imaging can also help health care providers confirm cancer diagnoses from more traditional methods—like biopsies— and see if cancer has spread to other parts of the body.

Prostate cancer

One of the newest clinically approved tools is a prostate imaging tool called Axumin.

It can be used to detect cancer at the cellular level and can help improve the accuracy of prostate cancer diagnoses, according to Janet Eary, M.D. Dr. Eary is deputy associate director of NCI’s Cancer Imaging Program.

Axumin is especially helpful in detecting prostate cancer that has returned. When cancer comes back, tumors are often smaller and harder to see. Axumin is used in what’s known as PET (positron emission tomography) imaging. For PET imaging, health care providers inject you with a tracer.

A tracer is a small amount of radioactive material that flows through your bloodstream and collects in certain body tissues. The radioactive imaging material decays quickly so your body gets rid of it fast.

The PET machine then makes 3-D pictures showing where the tracer collects in the body. These scans show how your organs and tissues are working.

Imaging and personalized medicine

PET images provide information about the function and biochemical activity of the body’s tissues, unlike other imaging techniques such as computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). They mostly show the body’s anatomy and structure.

Imaging techniques like PET help show how our body tissues function or if they have disease. Each set of images is unique to the individual patient.

This supports NCI’s and NIH’s goal of precision medicine, which aims to make patient treatment more individualized.

“Imaging fits into precision medicine efforts in cancer,” Dr. Eary said, adding that it “can help us select therapies that are really aimed at individual patients.”

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