Scientists develop bright dye that sticks to cancer cells in groundbreaking study | Cancer

Scientists have developed a bright dye that attaches to cancer cells, giving surgeons a “second pair of eyes” to remove them in real time and permanently eradicate the disease. Experts say the breakthrough could reduce the risk of cancer coming back and prevent debilitating side effects.

The fluorescent dye highlights small cancerous tissue that cannot be seen with the naked eye, allowing surgeons to remove every last cancer cell while preserving healthy tissue. That could mean fewer life-changing side effects after surgery.

The technique was developed by scientists and surgeons at the University of Oxford in collaboration with California biotechnology company ImaginAb Inc and was funded by Cancer Research UK.

“We’re giving the surgeon a second set of eyes to see where the cancer cells are and whether they have spread,” said Freddie Hamdy, a professor of surgery at the University of Oxford. “With this technique, we can remove all of the cancer, including cells that have spread from the tumor, which could give it a chance to come back later.”

In the first trial of its kind, 23 men with prostate cancer were injected with the tracer dye before undergoing surgery to remove their prostate. The fluorescent dye highlighted the cancer cells and where they had spread to other tissues, such as the pelvis and lymph nodes.

A special imaging system was used to illuminate the prostate and nearby regions, making the prostate cancer cells glow. The ability to see such details allowed surgeons to remove cancer cells while preserving healthy tissue.

Details of the advance were published on Monday, June 10, in the European Journal of Nuclear Medicine and Molecular Imaging.

David Butler from Southmoor in Oxfordshire, who took part in the ProMOTE study. Photography: David Butler

“This is the first time we’ve been able to see such fine details of prostate cancer in real time during surgery,” said Hamdy, lead author of the ProMOTE study. “It also allows us to preserve as much healthy structures around the prostate as possible, to reduce unnecessary life-changing side effects such as incontinence and erectile dysfunction.

“Prostate surgery changes lives. We want patients to leave the operating room knowing that we have done everything possible to eradicate their cancer and give them the best quality of life afterwards. I think this technique makes that possibility a reality.”

The procedure works by combining the dye with a target molecule known as IR800-IAB2M. The dye and marker molecule bind to a protein called prostate-specific membrane antigen (PSMA), which is found on the surface of prostate cancer cells.

David Butler, 77, a retired sales development manager from Southmoor, Oxfordshire, is cancer-free after becoming one of 23 men to take part in the trial. Before surgery, scans indicated that his prostate cancer had begun to spread.

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Now fully recovered and healthy, Butler said he was a “lucky man” and was determined to “enjoy every moment” of life. He added: “I retired early to make the most of life’s pleasures: gardening, bowling and walking. Participating in the ProMOTE study has allowed me to enjoy many more of those pleasures in the years to come.”

Although the technique has been tested in patients with prostate cancer, it could be adapted to other forms of the disease. Experts hope the dye could be used for other types of cancer by changing the protein with which it attaches to cancer cells.

Dr Iain Foulkes, executive director of research and innovation at Cancer Research UK, said: “Surgery can effectively cure cancers when they are removed at an early stage. But, in those early stages, it is almost impossible to tell at a glance which cancers have spread locally and which have not.”

More trials were now needed in larger groups of patients, but the combined imaging and marker dye system could “fundamentally transform” the way we treat cancer in the future, Foulkes said.

“It’s exciting that we may soon have access to surgical tools that could reliably eradicate prostate cancer and other cancers and give people longer, healthier lives free of this disease.”

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