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Giving cancer cells an inner glow to help surgeons remove them

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When it comes to removing tumors, surgeons rely on what they can see with their eyes, but at a smaller scale, cancerous cells could be left behind that could grow into new malignancies. Conversely, overly cautious approaches could mean healthy tissue is cut away. A new technique from researchers at Michigan Technological University (MTU) could lead to glow-in-the-dark tumors that would help guide surgeons to the exact tissue that needs to be extracted.

The technique, developed by Haiying Liu, a chemistry professor at MTU, builds upon a current method that gets cancer antibodies coated with enzymes to stick to tumors. Liu simply added a marker that clings to the enzyme, known as beta-galactocidase, and fluoresces in the near-infrared range of light. This means that once the solution is taken up by the body, it can be seen even deep within tissues once the light is applied.

MTU says the new marker is nontoxic at low concentrations and is stable over long periods of time so that it could assist surgeons even during hours-long procedures. What's more, it glows red, which is different from the fluorescent markers used on other tissues, which typically glow green or blue, so this can help truly pinpoint the dangerous cells.

Thus far Liu and his team have shown that the marker binds to beta-galactocidase-covered cells in a test tube. The next step for the researchers is to work with medical professionals to see how the solution could scale up for use in actual surgery.

This certainly isn't the first time we've heard about making cancer glow. Researchers at Oregon State University (OSU) developed a way to achieve the same results in 2015 by using a compound known as naphthalocyanine that not only lit up cancerous cells to help guide surgeons, but could also be heated to help kill the cancer off. We also just reported on graphene quantum dots, which could someday be used to light up malignancies in the body as well. 

But when it comes to fighting the Big C, more weapons in the arsenal are certainly not a bad thing. 

Or, as Liu puts it: "Doctors want to remove all the cancer, but they also don't want to cut too much. We want to make their job a little easier."

The research has been reported in the journal Analytic Chimica Acta.

Source: Michigan Tech

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