Light-emitting nanoparticles could detect cancer months earlier than MRI scans

Nanoprobes could be used to track cancers from early stages in development

A new study published in the the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering, has shown a new way of detecting tumours in their early stages, and it involves nanoparticles.

Lead scientist Dr Steven Libutti, director of Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey, said: “The Achilles’ heel of surgical management for cancer is the presence of micro-metastases.”

In other words, cancer can sometimes spread to other sites of the body at too microscopic a level to be detected. However, the recent tests performed on mice could suggest that tumours can be caught before they pose a serious threat.

Artist’s impression of the structure of a nanoparticle

“We’ve always had this dream that we can track the progression of cancer in real time, and that’s what we’ve done here,” said Prabhas V. Moghe, a coauthor of the study and distinguished Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Rutgers-New Brunswick. “We’ve tracked the disease in its very incipient stages.”

Libutti said that the nanoscale probes will go “a long way” to solving the problems that micrometastasis poses for treatment planning.

The idea is to inject a nanoparticle into the body, which acts as a tiny optical device that emits short-wave infrared light when illuminated by a tissue-penetrating laser.

When the nanoparticles “light up”, they reveal locations where the cancer has spread throughout the body. These can be detected using a special camera.

The illustration shows how human breast cancer cells in a mouse model were “chased” with the nanoprobes injected into the blood. When the subject is illuminated, the probes glow in an infrared range of light that is more sensitive than other optical forms of illumination. Here, the probes show the spread of cancer cells to adrenal glands and femur (thigh) bones.
(Harini Kantamneni and Professor Prabhas Moghe/Rutgers University New Brunswick)

Moghe noted that the technology could be used to find and follow the 100-plus types of cancer, and could be available within five years.

Coauthor Dr Vidya Ganapathy, from the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Rutgers University, said: “Cancer cells can lodge in different niches in the body, and the probe follows the spreading cells wherever they go.

“You can treat the tumours intelligently because now you know the address of the cancer.”

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A. Jama

Jama is a researcher in biochemistry and molecular biology, with a focus on metabolism and cancer. You can find him on twitter discussing a broad range of topics, from US politics to Game of Thrones. He also has the best memes.

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