Detecting Invisible Cancers

Doctors have discovered a way to make cancerous tumors glow, allowing surgeons to see and potentially remove lesions that otherwise couldn’t be detected.

Dr. Sunil Singhal, the director of Thoracic Surgery Research Laboratory at Penn Medicine, uses a dye that has been engineered to accumulate in cancer cells and glow green under infrared light.

After Francie, a 65-year-old who has been smoking since high school, was diagnosed with lung cancer, she volunteered to participate in one of Dr. Singhal’s trials.

A CT scan showed Francie had one tumor on her lung. But when the dye was used, tissue that had looked clear, glowed, and doctors were able to remove the lesions. Francie didn’t need any additional chemotherapy or radiation. And, she and her husband have since stopped smoking.

“This, to me, is revolutionary,” ER physician Dr. Travis Stork says.

Dr. Singhal explains that in about one out of every three cancer surgeries, doctors aren’t able to remove all the cancerous tissue. The dyes, which also are being tested on breast, kidney and ovarian cancers, should improve that statistic.

“This is the future of surgery,” Dr. Singhal says. “If we can start catching cancer cells before you can see them on an X-ray, it’s going to change the way we deal with cancer for everyone.”

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