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High-Tech Glasses Show Cancer Cells

ST. LOUIS, March 14, 2014 — Distinguishing between cancer cells and healthy cells could become easier for surgeons. And all they’ll need to do is put on glasses.

A team at Washington University’s School of Medicine — led by Dr. Samuel Achilefu, professor of radiology and biomedical engineering at Washington University, and also professor of biochemistry and molecular biophysics at Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital — developed the new eyewear technology. It incorporates custom video technology with a head-mounted display and a targeted molecular agent that attaches to cancer cells and makes them glow when viewed with the glasses. The lighter the shade of blue, the more concentrated the cancer cells are.

In initial studies, the researchers injected indocyanine green into a tumor, making the cancer cells glow when viewed with the glasses under a special light. They were able to detect tumors as small as 1 mm in diameter.


A florescent marker injected into the patient made cancer cells glow blue when viewed with the new glasses and special lighting (shown here). Courtesy of Washington University in St. Louis.

“A limitation of surgery is that it’s not always clear to the naked eye the distinction between normal tissue and cancerous tissue,” said Dr. Ryan Fields, an assistant professor of surgery at Washington University and a surgeon at the center. “With the glasses, we can better identify the tissue that must be removed.”

These glasses were used for the first time last month at the center and have already demonstrated promising results.

“We’re in the early stages of this technology, and more development and testing will be done, but we’re certainly encouraged by the potential benefits to patients,” said Dr. Julie Margenthaler, an associate professor of surgery at the university who performed the first operation with the glasses.

As cancer cells are often difficult to see, even under high-powered magnification, surgeons must remove tissue adjacent to a tumor without knowing if the tissue includes cancer cells. Following lab tests to determine the presence of such cells, subsequent surgeries could be necessary.

Margenthaler said that about 20 to 25 percent of breast cancer patients who have lumps removed require a second surgery, as current technology cannot always show the extent of the disease after the first procedure.

“Imagine what it would mean if these glasses eliminated the need for follow-up surgery and the associated pain, inconvenience and anxiety,” Margenthaler said.

Achilefu is now seeking approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for a different molecular agent that could be used with the glasses, which would specifically target cancer cells and stay inside them longer.

“This technology has great potential for patients and health care professionals,” he said. “Our goal is to make sure no cancer is left behind.”

The research is funded by the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health.

For more information, visit www.wustl.edu.


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