- Cullman, Alabama


February 3, 2013

UAB researchers make cancer cells glow in the dark

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — There's no missing these cancer cells. They glow in the dark.

Researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham are leading the way toward an improvement in cancer surgery that works by literally lighting up cancer cells for better recognition by the medical team and more accuracy in removing the cancer.

"Over a hundred years there's been a lot of advances in medical therapy but the cancer surgery realm has pretty much stayed the same," said Dr. Eben Rosenthal, senior scientist in the Experimental Therapeutics Program at the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center. "You basically cut out the cancer by looking at it, or eyeballing it."

But by infusing fluorescent dye into FDA approved antibodies (cetuximab) that target proteins expressed by cancer, the surgeons easily can spot the cancer cells using an elaborate imaging machine called Spy, said Rosenthal, a professor of surgery in the Division of Otolaryngology.

Its secret is an infrared camera which monitors the surgical site in real time.

The detection is good down to a clump of 400 cells which is about the size of the tip of a pen - something possibly undetectable or easily missed without the dye.

Though similar research is going on elsewhere, UAB is farther down the road toward human clinical trials which are expected within six months, Rosenthal said.

One of the highlights of this process is the ability to see in real time the residual, or leftover, cancer cells after a section is removed from the body. So the surgeon can go in, remove a section and then look again for the telltale glow - which is the dye-infused antibody latched onto the cancer cells.

Dr. Kurt Zinn, a veterinarian, is now testing the dye-antibody concoction for toxicity in animals. He expects to be finished this month.

"I think what's unique about this is that, from beginning to end, it is a UAB project," said Zinn, a professor in the Department of Radiology and also a senior scientist in the Experimental Therapeutics Program.

Researchers were blessed with an antibody which already had received U.S. Federal Drug Administration approval for cancer research in another research project at UAB. The camera equipment, too, had FDA approval. The animal toxicity testing is really all that is standing in front of human trials and that is nearly done.

"The shortest arc to the clinic was using existing equipment," Rosenthal said. "We can get it to patients quicker, using the existing technology and FDA approved items."

Rosenthal said it has pushed their research ahead of any other looking at similar processes.

"If we don't have the first patient injection (in a human trial phase) in four to six months, I'll be surprised," Rosenthal said.

Working with Rosenthal and Zinn on the research are Dr. Kristie Day, a postdoctoral fellow in the Division of Otolaryngology, and Dr. Melissa Korb, a resident in the Department of Surgery.

"Being a part of research that could potentially change the way we do surgery, as well as improve patient outcomes is very exciting," Day said. "The potential benefit to patients can't be overstated."


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