Doctors try new approach by making cancer tumors glow to target them during surgery

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Doctors at the University of Pennsylvania are studying a new approach to more precisely pinpoint cancerous cells - by making them glow with special dyes. (KABC)

When surgeons operate to remove cancer, they do their best to take out every part of the tumor that appears malignant.

Yet, sometimes stray cancer cells remain undetected and are not taken out because surgeons have no good way during an operation to tell what is cancer and what is not.

But doctors at the University of Pennsylvania are studying a new approach to more precisely pinpoint and target cancerous cells by making them glow.

Dr. Sunil Singhal explained that when he saw images of a tumor near his patient Ryan Ciccozzi's heart, he knew they had to act quickly.

"It was almost 4-5 inches. So to give you a sense, it's the size of two fists put together," Singhal said.

Ciccozzi said the idea of injecting dye into the tumor to detect malignant cells makes sense.

"Whatever is glowing needs to come out now," he said.

Singhal was inspired by the idea of glowing tumors about a decade ago. He found that when one type of dye was given in big doses by an IV a day before surgery, it collected in cancer cells and glowed when exposed to infrared light.

In the operating room, Singhal demonstrated to his team that when a laser is pointed on an area surrounding a tumor, the healthy part does not glow while the cancerous tissue does.

The difference between the two is remarkable.

And, as Singhal operated on Ciccozzi, something unexpected showed up that didn't appear on scans done before surgery.

"The cancer is growing into the lung, so we're going to take a piece of the lung out too," Singhal said.

The dyes are still experimental, but several are in late-stage testing. The federal government is helping sponsor some of the research.

Paula Jacobs, who is an imaging specialist at the National Cancer Institute, thinks that dyes can dramatically improve patient care by helping to remove all the cancer, while still sparing healthy tissue.

"Some cancers it's very much more important than others to not take any more than you have to," Jacobs said.

Some experts also think dyes may hold the most promise for breast cancer. Up to one-third of women having a lump removed end up having a second surgery after tests later show that some cancer was left behind.

"This is a problem. It's not only expensive, it's debilitating, it's upsetting - it's all of these things," Jacobs said. "And you know, patients have to undergo yet another surgery and sometimes even more than one."

Singhal believes using the dyes and this technique could give patients a better chance of survival.

"Now it's almost like we have bionic vision and we can start to scan the area making sure that we removed everything," he said.

It's the weapon doctors need as they hunt for hidden cancers.
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