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updated 10/20/2010 6:31:27 PM ET 2010-10-20T22:31:27

In the future, doctors may have a tiny "tumor magnet" that can be injected into our bodies, circulating through the bloodstream, sticking to the blood vessels of any cancerous tumor and then lighting up on an X-ray, alerting them to the cancer.

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That's because scientists have discovered a protein present in only two places: in low levels in the reproductive system, and in the cells lining the blood vessels that feed all cancerous tumors, said study researcher Aurelian Radu, an assistant professor at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York.

"It's in all the tumor types, in all the patients we examined," Radu told MyHealthNewsDaily.

The protein is called FSH receptor. Normally, its job is to receive signals from follicle-stimulating hormone, which plays roles in human reproduction and blood vessel growth.

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Radu, along with his colleagues from Mount Sinai and the National Institute of Health and Medical Research in France, examined 11 common types of cancer tumors, including cancers of the breast, ovaries, prostate, colon, lung and liver, from more than 1,300 people. They found the FSH receptor in every tumor, Radu said.

Then, using mice, the researchers put the receptor's cancer-detecting potential to the test. They engineered a molecule that would bind only to FSH receptor, and coupled that molecule with gold particles that can be seen on an X-ray.

After injecting the gold-particle mixture into tumor-ridden mice, they found the mixture stuck only to the blood vessels of tumors, not to blood vessels of normal tissue, Radu said.

FSH receptor has the potential not only to aid in cancer diagnosis and imaging, but to provide a target for drugs that can kill cancer cells, he said. Its use could help minimize the damage such drugs do to surrounding tissue or organs.

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Blood vessels that surround a cancer tumor are an important target for fighting cancer. The middle of a tumor contains mostly dead cells, but the blood vessels surrounding the tumor help it grow, Radu said.

"Although we don't know the mechanisms why this marker appears, it's likely it's evolved because of the need of the tumor to grow blood vessels to get nourishment," he said.

Radu said he will now test whether the mouse experiment can be replicated in humans. He also said he wants to discover the purpose of FSH receptor in the tumor blood vessels, though he suspects it helps activate the growth of blood vessels in tumors.

The study will be published tomorrow (Oct. 21) in The New England Journal of Medicine.

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