Drug Discovery

Lighting up cancer

The first fluorescence-guided surgery on an ovarian cancer patient was performed in 2011 using a cancer cell "homing device" and imaging agent created by a Purdue University researcher.

The surgery was one of 10 performed as part of the first phase of a clinical trial to evaluate a new technology to aid surgeons in the removal of malignant tissue from ovarian cancer patients. The method illuminates cancer cells to help surgeons identify and remove smaller tumors that could otherwise be missed.

Philip Low, the Ralph C. Corely Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and director of the Purdue Center for Drug Discovery who invented the technology, said surgeons were able to see clusters of cancer cells as small as one-tenth of a millimeter, as opposed to the earlier average minimal cluster size of 3 millimeters in diameter based on current methods of visual and tactile detection.

"Ovarian cancer is notoriously difficult to see, and this technique allowed surgeons to spot a tumor 30 times smaller than the smallest they could detect using standard techniques," Low said. "By dramatically improving the detection of the cancer - by literally lighting it up - cancer removal is dramatically improved."

The technique attaches a fluorescent imaging agent to a modified form of the vitamin folic acid, which acts as a "homing device" to seek out and attach to ovarian cancer cells. Patients are injected with the combination two hours prior to surgery and a special camera system, called a multispectral fluorescence camera, then illuminates the cancer cells and displays their location on a flat-screen monitor next to the patient during surgery.

Surgeons involved in the study reported finding an average of 34 tumor deposits using this technique, compared with an average of seven tumor deposits using visual and tactile observations alone. A paper detailing the study was published online in Nature Medicine.

- Elizabeth K. Gardner, http://bit.ly/22dD7f2

Giving hope to people with lung cancer

In her laboratory in the new Bindley Bioscience Center’s Multidisciplinary Cancer Research Facility, a sunlit environment where graduate assistants bustle between fluorescent imaging systems and injectable plate readers, Andrea Kasinski is laser-focused on two goals.

Her first goal: to better understand how cancer therapeutics work. “A lot of times we take a small-molecule drug and try it, but we don’t know why it works,” says Kasinski, the William and Patty Miller Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences. “I want to know what we are hitting and what the potential side effects are.”

Her second goal: to give people hope. “It’s always important to ground myself in the idea that our work can benefit someone,” she says.

Kasinski hopes to accomplish both goals while studying lung cancer, which kills more men and women than breast, colon and prostate cancers combined. When diagnosed while the cancer is still localized within the lung, the five-year survival rate is around 50 percent. But 85 percent of lung cancers are diagnosed after they’ve spread to other organs, and five-year survival rates among those patients is only 4 percent. That’s in large part because as the cancer metastasizes, it mutates into varieties often resistant to available drugs. Kasinski believes that microRNAs could hold the key to future treatments. Discovered 21 years ago, these small, non-coding RNA molecules are now known to bind to certain genes even if they’re not perfectly complementary, so a single miRNA is theoretically capable of affecting several different genes that are causing cancer to grow. Around three years ago, Kasinski determined that restoration of a particular miRNA has a therapeutic effect on lung cancer in mice. Now she’s collaborating with clinicians and Mirna Therapeutics to study the miRNA in a handful of patients around the world. It’s the very first clinical trial for an miRNA.

For purposes of the trial, patients with liver cancer are being studied. “But if this works — and we’re optimistic — it will hopefully be useful in a variety of cancers, including lung,” Kasinksi says. Although Kasinski did her postdoctoral work at a university with its own hospital and where she could attend case conferences whenever she wanted, the fact that Purdue is a basic cancer research center hasn’t held her back at all. “I still work with many of the leading lung cancer physicians in the world,” she says. “And if anything, I think the environment at Purdue promotes our work. Basic science fuels clinical application. Otherwise, you’d be going through blindly and cherry picking.”

- Angie Roberts

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