Docs Light Up Cancer

Purdue scientists have developed a dye that helps surgeons spot ovarian cancer cells. (Courtesy of Philip Low)

A dye that tracks tumors and glows under fluorescent light helps guide doctors during cancer surgery. Dutch doctors recently used the dye, likened to a homing device, to light up ovarian cancer cells during surgery in a small study of 10 patients.

“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,” Philip Low, the Purdue University chemistry professor who invented the dye, said in a statement. “By dramatically improving the detection of the cancer — by literally lighting it up — cancer removal is dramatically improved.”

The study results were published Sunday in Nature Medicine.

Surgical cancer removal is usually followed by other treatments, such as chemotherapy, that work better when fewer cancer cells remain.

“With ovarian cancer, it is clear that the more cancer you can remove, the better the prognosis for the patient,” Low said in a statement. “This is why we chose to begin with ovarian cancer. It seemed like the best place to start to make a difference in people’s lives.”

Although researchers tested the dye in patients with ovarian cancer, Low told “Good Morning America” today that he envisioned the same strategy working for 40 percent of cancers.

The dye is linked to folate – a vitamin absorbed by cells to varying degrees. Ovarian cancer has one of the highest rates of folate receptor expression, Low said. But lung, kidney, endometrial, breast and colon cancers can express the receptor, too.

Other dyes have been shown to target and illuminate tumors. But Low said his dye is much more specific, providing better contrast between tumors and the healthy tissue that borders them.

Low said he and his team plan to work with the Mayo clinic on the next stage of clinical trials. In the meantime, they will continue to work to improve the dye.

“We want to be able to see deeper into the tissue, beyond the surface,” Low said in a statement. “Different cancers have tumors with different characteristics, and some branch and wind their way deeper into tissue. We will continue to evolve this technology and make improvements that help cancer patients.”