There's nothing like a eureka moment in science when an innovation changes the course of how things are done. We trudge along with potentially problematic methods — that is until someone comes up with a simple and elegant alternative.

Could this be the case with a new technique developed by scientists from University College London?

Usually when a patient undergoes magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) for cancer, a radioactive material is injected into the patient for the scan to pick up. With the new technique, called glucose chemical exchange saturation transfer (glucoCEST), doctors inject a safe and inexpensive solution of regular sugar.

The research works on the premise that tumors consume more glucose than healthy tissue. The scientists were able to adjust an MRI scanner to detect glucose, and surprisingly, only the amount of sugar found in half a standard chocolate bar was required.

Dr. Simon Walker-Samuel from the UCL Centre for Advanced Biomedical Imaging said in a statement, "the method uses an injection of normal sugar and could offer a cheap, safe alternative to existing methods for detecting tumors, which require the injection of radioactive material."

In 2010, the FDA published an initiative to reduce unnecessary radiation exposure from testing procedures, noting that these types of exams “expose patients to ionizing radiation, which may elevate a person’s lifetime risk of developing cancer.”

Professor Mark Lythgoe, co-author of the study and director of the UCL Centre for Advanced Biomedical Imaging, says the new research could potentially provide a useful and cost-effective method for imaging cancer with MRIs. It would also allow sensitive patients, like pregnant women and children, to be scanned without the risks associated with radiation exposure.

He said, "in the future, patients could potentially be scanned in local hospitals, rather than being sent to specialist medical centers."

Walker-Samuel added that the new technique will, “hopefully enable us to assess the efficacy of novel cancer therapies."

The study is published in the journal Nature Medicine. Trials are now underway.

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