The researchers believe aggressive cancer cells have high T1 values because they tend to be small, but have large nuclei - the control centres within each cell containing our DNA, near which water can behave 'more freely'.
By evaluating tumours' cellular make-up with T1 MRI scans, clinicians would be able to get an accurate understanding of the stage and aggressiveness of the disease in children with neuroblastoma.
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Next, researchers at the ICR - a charity and research institute - plan to assess the clinical benefit of T1 mapping as part of a clinical study involving children.
The new research is the first to assess the benefit of the MRI technique as a 'smart' cancer biopsy - and researchers believe the results could be replicated more widely in other cancer types in children and adults.
Study leader Dr Yann Jamin, Children with Cancer UK Research Fellow at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, said:
"Our findings show that an imaging technique readily available on most MRI scanners has the potential to pick out children with aggressive cancer and give us early signs of whether a treatment is working. We've shown in mice that this technique can give us detailed insights into the biology of neuroblastoma tumours and help guide use of precision medicine, and next we want to assess its effectiveness in children with cancer.
"It is easy to perform and analyse T1 MRI scans, and they could be used to provide insights into many aspects of cancer biology - and help doctors to design tailored treatments based on how aggressive a tumour appears to be."
Professor Paul Workman, Chief Executive of The Institute of Cancer Research, London, said:
"It's exciting that we've shown that a scan widely used to image the heart has the potential to greatly improve our understanding and treatment of cancer too. There is already a lot of experience in using this technique in NHS hospitals, and I hope we can rapidly move to assessing its use in clinical trials of cancer patients.
"It's vital that we find ways to improve treatments for aggressive childhood cancers like neuroblastoma - and also that we spare children unnecessary side effects by minimising exposure to drugs that do not seem to be working."
Mark Brider, Chief Executive Officer, Children with Cancer UK said:
"Neuroblastoma is one of the most common childhood tumours with around 100 children, mostly under five years old, diagnosed every year in the UK. Yet it also has one of the lowest survival rates and in its high-risk form is one of the most difficult childhood cancers to cure.