Scientists are harnessing light therapy to target and kill the world’s first cancer cells

Scientists have succeeded in developing a breakthrough cancer treatment that lights up and kills microscopic cancer cells, a breakthrough that could allow surgeons to more effectively target the disease and eradicate it in patients.

A European team of engineers, physicists, neurosurgeons, biologists and immunologists from the UK, Poland and Sweden joined forces to design the new form of photoimmunotherapy.

Experts believe it is on track to become the fifth most common cancer treatment in the world after surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and immunotherapy.

The light-activated therapy forces cancer cells to glow in the dark, helping surgeons remove more tumors than current techniques, then kills remaining cells within minutes after surgery is complete. In the world’s first trial of mice with glioblastoma, one of the most common and dangerous types of brain cancer, analyzes have revealed that the new treatment illuminates even the smallest cancer cells to help surgeons eliminate them, then to eliminate these residues.

Trials of a new form of photoimmunotherapy, led by Institute Cancer Research, London, also showed that the treatment elicited an immune response that could prompt the immune system to target cancer cells in the future, suggesting that it might prevent the glioblastoma from coming back after surgery. Researchers are currently studying a new treatment for cancerous neuroblastoma in children.

“Brain cancers such as glioblastoma can be difficult to treat, and unfortunately there are very few treatment options for patients,” study leader Dr Gabriella Kramer-Maric told The Guardian. “Surgery is difficult because of the location of tumors, so new ways of seeing cancer cells to be removed during surgery and treating cancer cells that remain afterwards could be very beneficial. »

The ICR team leader in preclinical molecular imaging added: “Our study shows that a novel photoimmunotherapy using a combination of fluorescent markers, body proteins and near-infrared light can identify and treat glioblastoma cell remnants. in mice. In the future, we hope to use this approach to treat human glioblastoma and possibly other cancers as well. »

The treatment combines a special fluorescent dye with a compound that targets cancer. In an experiment in mice, this combination was shown to significantly improve the vision of cancer cells during surgery and, when subsequently activated by near-infrared light, produced an antitumor effect.

Scientists from the ICR, Imperial College London, the Medical University of Silesia in Poland and the Swedish company AffibodyAB believe the new treatment could help surgeons easily and effectively remove particularly difficult tumours, such as than those of the head and neck.

This joint effort was largely funded by Cancer Research UK’s Center for Science and Convergence at ICR and Imperial College London – a partnership that brings together international scientists from the disciplines of engineering, physical sciences and life sciences to find innovative ways to treat cancer.

Professor Axel Burns, head of the cancer stem cell team at Cancer Research and Science and director of the Scientific Convergence Center for Cancer Research UK, said:

“This research demonstrates a new approach to identify and treat glioblastoma cells in the brain by using light to transform the immunosuppressive environment into a weak immune environment, which has exciting potential as a therapy for this aggressive type of brain tumor. . »

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After decades of progress in treating cancer, the four main forms that exist today – surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy and immunotherapy – mean that more people diagnosed with the disease can be treated. effectively and that many can live in good health for many years.

However, the proximity of some tumors to vital body organs means there is a need to develop new methods of treating cancer so that doctors can overcome the risks of harming healthy parts of the body. Experts think photoimmunotherapy could be the answer.

When tumors grow in sensitive areas of the brain such as the motor cortex, which is involved in planning and controlling voluntary movements, glioblastoma surgery can leave behind hard-to-treat tumor cells, meaning the disease may return later in a more aggressive form. .

The new treatment uses synthetic molecules called sub-objects. These are small proteins that have been engineered in the lab to bind to a specific target with high precision, in this case a protein called EGFR – which is mutated in many cases of glioblastoma.

The microorganisms were then combined with a fluorescent molecule called IR700 and administered to mice before surgery. Highlighting the compounds made the dye glow, highlighting microscopic areas of tumors in the brain for surgeons to remove. The laser was then switched to near-infrared light, which triggered anti-tumor activity, killing the remaining cells after surgery.

“Photoimmunotherapy can help us target cancer cells that cannot be removed during surgery, which can help people live longer after treatment,” said Dr. Charles Evans, director of information on the research at Cancer Research UK. He warned that there were still technical challenges to overcome, such as accessing all parts of the tumor with near-infrared radiation, but added that he was “excited to see how this research will progress”.

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