Optical probes that make cancer cells glow and improve surgical tumor removal are in phase I and II clinical trials in humans. They could be a common procedure in the next 5 to 10 years, according to a review of their progress published in Cell Chemical Biology (doi:10.1016/j.chembiol.2015.12.003).

Currently, fluorescence detection is used via dyes that make patients’ blood glow, which helps surgeons find blood vessels or detect successful perfusion of tissues during transplant. In addition, a revolution in chemical dyes over the past 2 decades has led to many options for how they bind, the cell types they bind to, and the light they emit.

“It’s a field that’s up and coming really fast right now,” said Matthew Bogyo, PhD, a biochemist at Stanford University Medical School in California, and senior author of the study. “Most people have no idea this stuff can be done, it sounds like science fiction, but we’re less than a decade away from this becoming standard practice.”

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Bogyo’s research has focused on developing chemical agents that target enzymes (proteases) specifically secreted by cancer cells. The chemical agents emit light that is picked up by special cameras through the skin and tissues. In 2008, Bogyo co-founded a company, Akrotome Imaging, to help translate some of his laboratory’s discoveries into the clinic.

The current challenges for moving the optical probes into clinical practice include funding needs and questions about the regulatory path, Bogyo explained. In addition, whether the fluorescent dyes will work in all tumors is unknown.

The researchers hope using precise optical probes for visualizing cancer cells in the operating room will make more surgeries successful the first time, leading to reduced costs for repeat biopsies and improved patient outcomes.