Scientists harness light therapy to target and kill cancer cells in a world first

Scientists have succeeded in developing a breakthrough cancer treatment that illuminates and eliminates microscopic cancer cells, a breakthrough that could allow surgeons to more effectively target and destroy disease 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 destined to become the world’s fifth major cancer treatment after surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and immunotherapy.

The light-activated therapy forces cancer cells to glow in the dark, helping surgeons remove more tumors than existing techniques, and then kills the remaining cells within minutes after the operation is complete. In a world-first trial of mice with glioblastoma, one of the most common and aggressive types of brain cancer, scans have shown the new treatment illuminates even the smallest cancer cells to help surgeons remove them, then dispose of the remaining ones.

Trials of the new form of photoimmunotherapy, conducted by the Institute of Cancer Research, London, also showed that the treatment triggered an immune response that could prime the immune system to target cancer cells in the future, suggesting it could prevent glioblastoma from coming back after surgery. Researchers are now also studying the new treatment for childhood cancer neuroblastoma.

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

The ICR team leader in preclinical molecular imaging added: “Our study shows that a new photoimmunotherapy treatment using a combination of a fluorescent marker, an affibody protein and near-infrared light can both identify and treat the remaining glioblastoma cells in mice. In the future, we hope this approach can be used to treat human glioblastoma and potentially other cancers as well.

The therapy combines a special fluorescent dye with a cancer-targeting compound. In the mouse trial, the combination was shown to significantly improve the visibility of cancer cells during surgery and, when subsequently activated by near-infrared light, to trigger an anti-tumor effect.

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

The joint effort was largely funded by ICR’s Cancer Research UK Convergence Science Center and Imperial College London – a partnership that brings together international scientists specializing in engineering, physics and life sciences to finding innovative ways to fight cancer.

“Multidisciplinary work is essential to find innovative solutions to meet the challenges we face in cancer research, diagnosis and treatment – and this study is an excellent example of this,” said Professor Axel Behrens, Head of the cancer stem cell team at the ICR and scientist. director of the Cancer Research UK Convergence Science Centre.

“This research demonstrates a novel approach to identify and treat glioblastoma cells in the brain by using light to transform an immunosuppressive environment into an immunovulnerable environment, and 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 that it is vital to develop new ways to treat cancer so that doctors can overcome the risk 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 tumor cells that can be very difficult to treat – and which mean that the disease may come back more aggressively later.

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

The affibodies were then combined with a fluorescent molecule called IR700, and administered to the mice before surgery. The bright light on the compounds caused the dye to glow, highlighting microscopic regions 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.

“Photo-immunotherapies could help us target cancer cells that cannot be removed during surgery, which may help people live longer after their treatment,” said Dr Charles Evans, Chief Information Officer for the research at Cancer Research UK. He warned that there were still technical challenges to overcome, such as reaching all parts of a tumor with near-infrared light, but added that he was “excited to see how this research will develop”.

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