'Spotlight' drug detects lingering cancer cells

November 11, 2013 by Genevieve Rajewski
‘Spotlight’ drug detects lingering cancer cells
Exposed to the fluorescent drug, the cancerous cells in this tumor “light up” white or light gray, while the normal tissue remains black. Credit: Lumicell Diagnostics

(Medical Xpress)—When a tumor is surgically removed, there's always a chance the cancer will return. Even the tiniest bit of malignancy left behind creates a pathway for the disease to recur—often within a couple of months.

"The problem in both human and veterinary medicine is that we can't tell if we've gotten microscopic bits of tumor out, because we can't see them," says John Berg, a veterinary surgeon at Tufts.

Berg's clinical research could one day lessen the odds that a cancer will come back—in both animals and humans. He's testing a new surgical tool developed by researchers at MIT that will let doctors know whether even a single malignant cell remains—while the patient is still in the operating room.

Dogs undergoing surgery for soft-tissue sarcoma and a common known as a mast cell tumor—both of which recur at high rates if not completely removed—are injected with a drug containing a that acts like a cancer-illuminating spotlight during the operation.

Administered 24 hours before surgery, the drug is made of a protein bound to two fluorescent molecules. Cancer cells have an inordinately large number of enzymes, which act as biological switches when they come into contact with the drug, causing the to light up. "The fluorescent dye remains in cancer cells for about 48 hours or so," says Berg, "so we can distinguish from when we do surgery the next day."

Once the tumor is removed, the surgeon aims a specially designed camera at the surgical site where the cancer once thrived. The camera emits a beam of fluorescent light: "If we see fluorescence, we've left tumor [cells] behind," says Berg. The glowing areas "pinpoint where we need to remove any residual cancer."

Preliminary results on 20 dogs are promising, Berg says. "What we've learned is that the technology is very good at distinguishing cancer from normal tissue. It does that with a high degree of accuracy," he notes. "What we haven't yet proven is if it will allow us to see microscopic quantities of tumor. That's because with most of the dogs we've treated, we've been able to make a very wide incision around the cancer, allowing us to remove the entire tumor."

To assess whether the surgical detector lives up to its claim of being able to sniff out as little as one lingering cancerous cell, Berg plans to conduct a larger study. "We're probably five to 10 years from this technology being a reality in regular practice," he says, "but I think it has tremendous promise for both animals and humans."

Explore further: Technology that helps surgeons see cancer tissue being tested

Related Stories

Technology that helps surgeons see cancer tissue being tested

October 23, 2013
OnTarget Laboratories LLC has teamed with partners in academia to test a novel optical imaging technology developed at Purdue University that could help surgeons see cancer tissue during surgery.

Special camera detects tumors

November 4, 2013
Tumor removal surgeries pose a great challenge even to skillful and experienced surgeons. For one thing, tumor margins are blending into healthy tissue and are difficult to differentiate. For another, distributed domains ...

Zebrafish shown to be useful tool in prostate cancer stem cell research

November 7, 2013
(Medical Xpress)—Research from Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey demonstrates that using zebrafish to identify self-renewing tumor stem cells in prostate cancers may be more beneficial than using traditional experimental ...

New imaging technique visualizes cancer during surgery

September 19, 2011
Ovarian cancer is one of the most frequent forms of cancer that affect women. As tumors can initially grow unchecked in the abdomen without causing any major symptoms, patients are usually diagnosed at an advanced stage and ...

Resveratrol could help treat multiple types of cancer, study finds

October 11, 2013
A recent study by a University of Missouri researcher shows that resveratrol, a compound found in grape skins and red wine, can make certain tumor cells more susceptible to radiation treatment. This research, which studied ...

Recommended for you

No dye: Cancer patients' gray hair darkened on immune drugs

July 21, 2017
Cancer patients' gray hair unexpectedly turned youthfully dark while taking novel drugs, and it has doctors scratching their heads.

Shooting the achilles heel of nervous system cancers

July 20, 2017
Virtually all cancer treatments used today also damage normal cells, causing the toxic side effects associated with cancer treatment. A cooperative research team led by researchers at Dartmouth's Norris Cotton Cancer Center ...

Molecular changes with age in normal breast tissue are linked to cancer-related changes

July 20, 2017
Several known factors are associated with a higher risk of breast cancer including increasing age, being overweight after menopause, alcohol intake, and family history. However, the underlying biologic mechanisms through ...

Immune-cell numbers predict response to combination immunotherapy in melanoma

July 20, 2017
Whether a melanoma patient will better respond to a single immunotherapy drug or two in combination depends on the abundance of certain white blood cells within their tumors, according to a new study conducted by UC San Francisco ...

Discovery could lead to better results for patients undergoing radiation

July 19, 2017
More than half of cancer patients undergo radiotherapy, in which high doses of radiation are aimed at diseased tissue to kill cancer cells. But due to a phenomenon known as radiation-induced bystander effect (RIBE), in which ...

Definitive genomic study reveals alterations driving most medulloblastoma brain tumors

July 19, 2017
The most comprehensive analysis yet of medulloblastoma has identified genomic changes responsible for more than 75 percent of the brain tumors, including two new suspected cancer genes that were found exclusively in the least ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.