Fluorescent Molecule Helps Pinpoint Cancer Cells

A new fluorescent molecular label has been developed to aid in both the identification and surgical removal of cancer. The molecule, which was created by researchers at the University of California at San Diego (UCSD), works by targeting cancer cells and subsequently tagging them with a fluorescent glow. In addition to fluorescing under near-infrared wavelengths, the molecule also boasts a magnetic marker that aids in the diagnosis of illness through the use of MRI technology.

The UCSD team reported recent studies related to the molecule in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Within the published papers, researchers indicate that the molecule allowed for a 90 percent improvement in removing residual cancer cells when compared to traditional visible light identification procedures.

Additionally, long-term survival rates of lab animals tested for the procedure increased by as much as five times.

Certainly, the new method seems to shine a light on the often-difficult task of cancer surgery. Currently, tumor removal requires a fair amount of guesswork when it comes to determining whether or not all pockets of cancer cells have been removed. In the future, surgeons may have the benefit of highlighted areas of cancer activity.

Previous efforts to pinpoint residual cancer cell deposits via fluorescence have been attempted. However, many of these alternative approaches require the use of viruses to insert a fluorescent marker. Other options have proven to fluoresce too dimly to show clearly through human tissue.

In addition to aiding the actual surgical procedure of cancer removal, pre- and post-operative processes may also be improved. Thanks to the magnetic marker within the molecule, a simple MRI can indicate the location of tumors prior to surgery. Following surgery, a follow-up MRI may indicate if any cancer cells had been missed.

One potential drawback to the procedure is the fact that matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs) – the type of molecule targeted by UCSD researchers – are not expressed by all types of cancer. Additionally, MMPs are present in some healthy cells as well, which could lead to false-positive identifications of cancer cells.

Still, researchers are hopeful that the trained eye of oncology surgeons will be able to distinguish between cancerous tissue and healthy tissue. As such, the fluorescent molecule is meant primarily as a surgical aid.

Beyond the application of cancer treatment, UCSD researchers are also hoping the molecule can aid in pinpointing other health risks, such as arterial plaques that can lead to stroke and heart attack.