Fluorescent Drug a “Giant Leap” in Cancer Research

Fluorescent Drug a “Giant Leap” in Cancer Research

A new fluorescent drug can illuminate cancerous lesions with near-infrared light during surgery. Using a newly approved approach, cancer surgeons are now able to find hidden tumors that would have otherwise gone undetected.

The drug will be released with the brand name Cytalux. It was invented at Purdue University and will be released by On Target Laboratories. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently approved the drug for use.

Click to see the tumors fluoresce. Image from Purdue.

The imaging agent is delivered via an IV injection between one and nine hours before the surgery for ovarian cancer. The fluorescent imaging agent binds to the cancer cells, allowing surgeons to find additional tumors in 27% of the patients, which would have otherwise been left behind, according to results of the Phase 3 clinical trial.

The drug is the first tumor-targeted fluorescent agent for ovarian cancer to be approved by the FDA.

Philip Low (rhymes with “now”), Purdue University’s Presidential Scholar for Drug Discovery and the Ralph C. Corley Distinguished Professor of Chemistry, is an inventor of the drug. He said that when a surgeon turns on the near-infrared light used in surgery, “Those lesions light up like stars against a night sky.”

“In the pivotal ovarian cancer trials, surgeons were able to find additional malignant tissue or improve the practice of surgery in 27% of all the patients,” he said. “It seems to me that future surgeries are going to very heavily rely on this technology.”

Cancer cells divide rapidly, much faster than normal tissue. To do this, they need folate, a type of B vitamin — and the cancer cells are ravenous for it. Low’s innovation was to tag a folate compound with a fluorescent dye and administer it intravenously to a patient before the surgery.

“Cancer cells have an enormous appetite for this vitamin,” Low said, “And we exploited their greed for folic acid by attaching a fluorescent dye to it.”

Low says the fluorescent imaging agent can allow surgeons to be more precise.

“Cancer lesions are often removed very crudely by cutting large margins around that cancer tissue and resecting a lot of healthy tissue,” he said. “That can often be damaging to the patient, especially when the healthy tissue is very valuable — and in most cases it is.”

YouTube video featuring Low explaining how the drug works is available.

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