New technique that makes cancer cells ‘glow’ during surgery developed

Tricky cancer operations can be made easier and more effective – thanks to a Purdue University researcher’s revolutionising technique that ‘lights up’ the cancerous cells during a surgery.

Philip Low, biochemistry professor from Purdue University in Indiana in the U.S., says that this procedure, named fluorescence-guided surgery, will help surgeons to identify and remove tumours measuring just one tenth of a millimeter that could otherwise be missed.

“Ovarian cancer is notoriously difficult to see, and this technique allowed surgeons to spot a tumor 30 times smaller than the smallest they could detect using standard techniques,” he said.

“By dramatically improving the detection of the cancer – by literally lighting it up – cancer removal is dramatically improved,” he said.

The technique attaches a fluorescent imaging agent to a modified form of the vitamin folic acid, which acts as a “homing device” to seek out and attach to ovarian cancer cells.

Patients are injected with the combination two hours prior to surgery and a special camera system, called a multispectral fluorescence camera, then illuminates the cancer cells and displays their location on a flat-screen monitor next to the patient during surgery.

The surgeons involved in this study reported finding an average of 34 tumor deposits using this technique, compared with an average of seven tumor deposits using visual and tactile observations alone.

The technology is based on Low’s discovery that folic acid, or folate, can be used like a Trojan horse to sneak an imaging agent or drug into a cancer cell.

A paper detailing the study was published online Sept. 18 in Nature Medicine.

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