Differentiating between malign and benign tumors is a difficult task, as is knowing if the cancer is a fast-progressing or slow-developing type. This can result in initial diagnoses that lead to patients being referred for further procedures that could be invasive, yet prove to be unnecessary. For instance, a cancer that is so slow growing that it likely wouldn’t severely impact a person’s health during their lifetime could be left alone, rather than surgically removed. In other cases, dense breast tissue can sometimes get in the way of locating and diagnosing existing tumors, which may then go undetected for a long time.
There needs to be a better, more accurate way of diagnosing breast cancer, one that would eliminate the stress and cost of treatments that could prove unnecessary.
That was the goal of researchers at the University of Michigan. To achieve their goal, the team developed a pill that acts as a molecular imaging agent, allowing specialists to obtain more precise information on the location and type of tumors.
The point of the study
Every year around 250,000 women and over two thousand men receive breast cancer diagnoses. The problem is those diagnoses can be a little fuzzy about the need for intervention.
The lead researcher on the University of Michigan team, Greg Thurber, commented. “We overspend 4 billion dollars per year on the diagnosis and treatment of cancers that women would never die from,” he notes in the study.
The study aimed to increase accuracy by developing a molecular imaging pill.
The U of M study was conducted on mice, the results published in the journal Molecular Pharmaceutics. The pill developed for the study carries a special “dyeing” agent that marks tumors by responding to a molecule that is present in tumor cells, the blood vessels that fuel tumor growth. When exposed to infrared light, the dye becomes visible. If this could serve as an accurate diagnostic tool, the pill would eliminate x-ray exposure, which can lead to DNA mutations.
The study reported that once the pill was absorbed into the body the marker accurately revealed where tumors were located. Plus, it provided information about the type of tumor. It did this by visibly marking the different molecules found on the surface of tumor cells. This is critical because it can help specialists differentiate between malign and benign nodules, as well as assess the type of cancer tumor.
This type of marking has been tried before with infrared dye injection. But patients have experienced severe adverse reactions to these injectable agents.
Interestingly, the pill used in the study was based off of a drug developed by other research teams that then proved to be ineffective in clinical cancer trials. The drug did, however, provide the method for delivering the dye through the gamut of the digestive system.
The failed drug proved a great piggyback for carrying macromolecules to the bloodstream, where they could then find any existing tumors. The macromolecule contained in the new pill was able to survive the acidic environment of the stomach. Plus, it wasn’t flushed out by the liver as a waste product. This allowed it to pass into the bloodstream and bind to the cancer cells.
This pill could prove a low-cost, effective diagnostic tool that would eliminate much of the current use of x-rays for diagnoses. Plus, it would increase the detail of the information in diagnoses to eliminate unnecessary treatments.