Researchers from the Seattle Children’s Hospital Research Institute and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre have developed a “tumour paint” that actually lit up cancerous cells in mice. It appears that this paint specifically binds to cancerous cells, leaving healthy ones intact. Surgeons currently have to rely on colour, texture and blood supply to identify malignant tissues. This new discovery however, could help them discern all cancerous cells more accurately, including those that have infiltrated healthy tissues.
The paint was developed from a molecule called chemotoxin. Chemotoxin, which comes from scorpions, is known to bond exclusively to malignant cells in tumour biopsies from a range of cancers. Chemotoxin emits light near the infra red spectrum, and in this new study, researchers were able to illuminate small tumours of approximately one millimetre in diameter in the brains of mice, without the surrounding tissues lighting up as well.
This discovery seems quite promising, particularly for brain cancer patients. It goes without saying that accurate removal of any tumour is crucial. However, accuracy is particularly fundamental in brain surgery, as it is vital healthy surrounding neurons not be damaged. Additionally, even with today’s techniques, close to 80% of malignant brain tumours return at the edges of surgical sites. This leads scientists to believe that some cancerous cells are indeed “forgotten” during the initial surgery. The new technique would allow the removal of all cancerous cells, and none would be left behind.
However, as experts remind us, the study has only been conducted with mice. It is essential extensive research be done to prove chemotoxin is not toxic to humans, and that it actually does yield the same results as in mice.
All advances in the realm of cancer treatment are always received with great enthusiasm. Let us hope that this technique can be successfully transposed from mice to men!