Light-up specks find and track tiny tumors

Scientists have created a method to detect tiny tumors and track their spread using light-emitting nanoparticles.

“You can treat the tumors intelligently because now you know the address of the cancer.”

The technology could lead to earlier cancer detection, more precise treatments, and even improvement in patient cure rates and survival times.

“We’ve always had this dream that we can track the progression of cancer in real time, and that’s what we’ve done here,” says Prabhas V. Moghe, a corresponding author of the study and professor of biomedical engineering and chemical and biochemical engineering at Rutgers University. “We’ve tracked the disease in its very incipient stages.”

The study shows that the new method is better than magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and other cancer surveillance technologies.

“The Achilles’ heel of surgical management for cancer is the presence of micro metastases. This is also a problem for proper staging or treatment planning. The nanoprobes described in this paper will go a long way to solving these problems,” says Steven K. Libutti, director of Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey, senior vice president of oncology services for RWJBarnabas Health, and vice chancellor for cancer programs for Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences.

The ability to spot early tumors that are starting to spread remains a major challenge in cancer diagnosis and treatment, as most imaging methods fail to detect small cancerous lesions. But the study shows that tiny tumors in mice can be detected with the injection of nanoprobes, which are microscopic optical devices, that emit short-wave infrared light as they travel through the bloodstream—even tracking tiny tumors in multiple organs.

The nanoprobes were significantly faster than MRIs at detecting the minute spread of tiny lesions and tumors in the adrenal glands and bones in mice.

That would likely translate to detection months earlier in people, potentially resulting in saved lives, says Vidya Ganapathy, a corresponding author and assistant research professor in the biomedical engineering department.

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“Cancer cells can lodge in different niches in the body, and the probe follows the spreading cells wherever they go,” she says. “You can treat the tumors intelligently because now you know the address of the cancer.”

The technology could be used to detect and track the 100-plus types of cancer, and could be available within five years, Moghe says. Real-time surveillance of lesions in multiple organs should lead to more accurate pre- and post-therapy monitoring of cancer.

“You can potentially determine the stage of the cancer and then figure out what’s the right approach for a particular patient,” he says.

In the future, nanoprobes could be used in any surgeries to mark tissues that surgeons want to remove, the researchers say. The probes could also be used to track the effectiveness of immunotherapy, which includes stimulating the immune system to fight cancer cells.

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The researchers describe their work in the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering.

The study includes additional authors from Rutgers University, the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey, and the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD).

Source: Rutgers University