Pixar animators inspire USC scientist's idea to color cancer tissue with tattoo ink so doctors can identify tumors faster

USC scientist Cristina Zavaleta, Ph.D. says besides tattoo ink, her team is also looking at other pigments people use everyday like food color and cosmetics.
A USC scientist combined her love of animation with medicine to figure out a whole new way to see cancer. The goal is to help surgeons identify tumors quickly and accurately. Animation inspired her bright idea.

The vivid storytelling of Pixar Animation inspired USC scientist Cristina Zavaleta, Ph.D. to dream up a new way to help doctors illuminate cancer.

"They were asking me for a paint. And at the time, I was taking a class with Pixar animators," she said.

Fellow art students introduced her to bold and bright tattoo inks.

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"It immediately made me think, 'I wonder if they have interesting optical properties,' and it made me think about what paints are already being used in humans," Zavaleta said.

Zavaleta's goal is to light up cancerous tissue during a colonoscopy or a surgery.

"That's what drove us to come up with this technique to give them a paint, and literally it is a paint," she laughed.
Her team at the USC Viterbi Department of Biomedical Engineering is working with nano particles that can move through blood vessels to find cancer. But scientists needed an imaging dye to bind with it that was safe, easy to see and long lasting. She went to a tattoo artist and gathered samples.

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"I took the paints back to the lab and I found they had optical properties that I don't think people really appreciated," Zavaleta said. "We're trying to give new imaging tools to surgeons or endoscopists to help them identify where the cancer actually is."

Zavaleta says besides tattoo ink, her team is also looking at other pigments people use everyday like food color and cosmetics.

"So the things in your lipsticks, the things in your eye shadows," she described.

Zavaleta doesn't know when this imaging-guided technique will be available for widespread use, but she has plenty of ideas to explore thanks to her love of animation.
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