New Technique for Imaging Brain Tumors Could Allow More Accurate Surgical Removal

Pictured: Moritz Kircher

Radiologist and molecular imaging scientist Moritz Kircher

A major challenge of brain tumor surgery is removing all of the cancer while preserving as much healthy brain tissue as possible. Because surgeons cannot cut wide margins around the tumor, cancer cells may be left behind.

Now a multi-institutional team of researchers from Memorial Sloan Kettering, Stanford University, and Weill Cornell Medical College has demonstrated a new technique that enables specific and accurate labeling of brain tumor tissue in mice. If the method is proven effective in patients, it could make complete surgical removal of brain tumors more feasible.

“One of the difficulties of neurosurgery is that the unaided eye can’t see the precise borders of the tumor,” says Memorial Sloan Kettering radiologist and molecular imaging scientist Moritz Kircher, the first author of the study published online April 15 in Nature Medicine. For example, an aggressive brain tumor called glioblastoma is characterized by irregular edges and small, fingerlike projections into healthy tissue, making these tumors especially difficult to remove completely.

“We hope our technique will be helpful in showing surgeons exactly where the borders of the tumor are located,” Dr. Kircher adds. “It may also be useful in finding cancer cells that have spread away from the primary tumor site.”

Cutting-Edge Imaging

The technique makes use of tiny molecules called triple-modality nanoparticles, which are many times smaller than cells. After being injected into the blood, the nanoparticles are able to home in on brain tumor cells and tag them with a label so the cells can be more easily detected. The particles remain in the cells for several days, so that one single dose can be used for both planning the surgery and as a guide during the surgical procedure.

These particles – the first of their kind – have unique properties that allow them to be seen using three complementary imaging technologies: MRI, which images the entire brain and the tumor; photoacoustic imaging, which can visualize the tumor in three dimensions in the operating room; and surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy (SERS) imaging, a type of imaging that has ultra-high sensitivity and resolution and can visualize microscopic residual tumor.

Both photoacoustic and Raman imaging are newer, experimental techniques that are based on the molecular interactions of a laser with the nanoparticle. In fact, this study is the first to demonstrate SERS imaging of a disease inside a living animal.

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Advanced Mouse Models

The study was performed in two mouse models of glioblastoma. One of the models was developed in the laboratories of study co-authors Ingo Mellinghoff and Eric Holland of Memorial Sloan Kettering. This model resembles human glioblastoma tumors quite closely, mimicking the way these tumors grow and spread in a patient’s brain.

The study found that when the nanoparticles were injected into the mice, they accumulated in all of the tumor tissue, but were not found at all in the surrounding healthy tissue. More research is needed to determine if the nanoparticles are safe before investigators can begin studying them in clinical trials for patients.

“In the future, we envision the way this technique would be used is that after being given the nanoparticles, the patient would get an MRI for staging and presurgical planning,” Dr. Kircher explains. “Then the neurosurgeon could use handheld photoacoustic imaging and Raman imaging devices to see the particles during surgery so that he or she would be able to completely remove the tumor without harming any healthy brain structures.”

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My 52 year old sister was just diagnosed with a Left glimoa occipitl lobe tumor. She has gotten
3 different opinions. Two doctors want to remove and another said Do NOT remove.
Please help us help her make an informed educated decision in order for her to have the best quality of life.

Kathy, unfortunately we are unable to answer specific medical questions on our blog. If your sister would like to make an appointment with a Memorial Sloan-Kettering physician, she may call our Physician Referral Service at 800-525-2225 or go to Thanks for your comment.

Hi is this technique currently available at MSKCC?

Anne, this technology is still being studied in the laboratory and is not yet being evaluated in patients. Thank you for your comment.

I have an acoustic Naroma which I had gamma knife radiation for I developed hydrocephalus and had a VP shunt placed I still have my tumor is there someone I can see as a follow up visit for a second opinion as I do not feel my Well Thank You

Dear Valerie, we’re sorry to hear about what you’ve been through. If you’d like to have a consultation at MSK you can make an appointment online or call 800-525-2225. Thank you for your comment and best wishes to you.