Researchers use vitamin B-12 to detect cancer

Justin Costley

Collaborating for more than 10 years, two researchers from the University and the Mayo Clinic have developed a new technique for detecting cancerous tumors using ordinary vitamin B-12.
The procedure, patented by Dr. Doug Collins, a diagnostic radiologist from the Mayo Clinic, and his former professor, Harry Hogenkamp, a University biochemist, could help doctors diagnose cancer earlier in patients with a variety of tumors.
It might also lead to new ways for doctors to monitor treatment success or even kill cancerous cells.
In this new imaging method, Hogenkamp and Collins attached radioactive atoms to a vitamin B-12 compound and injected them into patients.
All living cells require the vitamin. But because aggressively growing cells — such as those in cancerous tumors — consume such large amounts of B-12, doctors can use an imaging device, similar to a CT scan, to see where the radioactive B-12 has concentrated.
“This is a new method of imaging tumors,” Hogenkamp said. “Eventually, what we hope to be able to do is develop other methods, using the same kind of technology, to eliminate tumors.”
Hundreds of patients will need to be tested before the technique is deemed successful, but a recent study showed that of 30 patients tested, the procedure found cancer in 90 percent of them.
Detecting tumors in the brain, lung, colon and other organs, the imaging technique has been particularly effective in finding breast cancer.
While mammographic and ultrasonographic exams sometimes miss tumors in dense breast tissue, the B-12 technique was able to detect cancer and distinguish between normal and cancerous tissue, Collins said.
Early detection might just be the tip of the B-12 iceberg however.
Collins and Hogenkamp believe it is possible to attach chemo-therapeutic or radioactive agents to the B-12 compound, allowing the vitamin to carry the toxin to the tumor and kill it.
“That potential of making vitamin B-12 a Trojan horse, a carrier that can go into the cell and deliver the therapeutic or toxic agents, is fairly exciting,” Collins said.
The researchers have already begun testing B-12’s cancer-killing possibilities in mice and plan on more testing during the summer.
Even if the mice studies produce positive results, Collins said it will be years before human trials would begin.
Imaging tumors has been an interest for Collins since he attended the University’s Medical School. Remembering his old professor’s expertise in vitamin B-12, Collins approached Hogenkamp about using B-12 to image tumors.
“Working with Harry has been one of the most enjoyable interactions I’ve had in the world of science,” Collins said.
“Tapping his interest in B-12 and my interest in tumor imaging and therapy, putting those two together and these two institutions, again strengthens the argument for inter-institutional collaboration.”

Justin Costley covers the Medical School and welcomes comments at [email protected] He can also be reached at (612) 627-4070 x3238.