Become a member of BioTechniques (it's free!) and receive the latest news in the life sciences, member-exclusives and 10% off BioTechniques article processing fees

Breast cancer diagnosed by pill

Written by Abigail Sawyer (Senior Editor)

Scientists have developed a pill that lights up breast cancer tumors.

Approximately one in three breast cancer patients undergo unnecessary surgery or chemotherapy on tumors that are benign. There are also women with treatable cancers who die due to undetected tumors that are hidden by dense breast tissue. This is due to difficulties inherent in current screening approaches, such as mammograms.

“We overspend $4 billion per year on the diagnosis and treatment of cancers that women would never die from,” explained Greg Thurber, leader of the study.

“If we go to molecular imaging, we can see which tumors need to be treated.”

The researchers from the University of Michigan (MI, USA) utilized a molecule that can bind to a target on cancer cells, in blood vessels that feed cancer cells and in inflamed tissue.

They combined this with a dye that responds to infra-red light to image the tumors and provide more information on whether the tumor is malignant or benign. Infra-red light can easily penetrate the body, without the same associated risk seen with X-rays, where DNA could potentially be disrupted and a new tumor initiated.

There were some difficulties with combining both into a pill, as in order for absorption into the bloodstream the molecule needs to be small and fat-soluble. However, in order for the imaging agent to be effective, it should be bigger and water-soluble.

“It’s actually based on a failed drug,” Thurber commented. “It binds to the target, but it doesn’t do anything, which makes it perfect for imaging.”

The team gave the pill to mice with breast cancer tumors, proving their success as the tumors lit up. It is hoped this pill could be utilized as a new diagnostic method for breast cancer; one that is more effective and leads to less trauma for patients.