Penn Medicine receives $9 million to advance research into imaging technology that illuminates tumors

Building on years of Penn Medicine research and use of imaging technology that illuminates tumor tissue; help clinicians detect and eliminate it more easily; The Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania received a five-year, $9 million research grant from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to advance the field, particularly for lung cancer patients .

This technology, intraoperative molecular imaging (IMI), is based on fluorescent beacon molecules that target and bind to tumor cells, essentially causing them to glow and allowing doctors to more easily distinguish cancer from healthy tissue. Penn researchers from the Center for Precision Surgery at the Abramson Cancer Center, along with colleagues from other institutions, will use the research grant to study and improve IMI technology for non-small cell lung cancers (NSCLC). Often linked to smoking, NSCLC is the most common form of lung cancer; they are diagnosed in more than 200,000 people in the United States each year and can be life-threatening.

This funding gives us a tremendous opportunity to further evaluate this important technology with the goal of improving patient outcomes. We aim to further develop this technology and study it in additional clinical trials to help improve the surgical identification and removal of tumors. ยป

Sunil Singhal MD, Principal Investigator Grant, William Maul Measey Professor of Surgical Research and Chief of Thoracic Surgery, and Director of the Center for Precision Surgery at Abramson Cancer Center

Singhal helped initiate research and development for the use of IMI in lung cancer surgery. Among other accomplishments, he led the first large multi-institutional randomized clinical trial of the technology for lung cancer -; the results of which are due May 17, 2022. To date, studies have shown that IMI can significantly improve surgeons’ ability to remove tumors, while sparing other healthy tissue.

The fluorescent beacon molecules used in IMI are normally infused into the patient hours or days before surgery. They bind to cell surface receptors, such as folate receptors, which are particularly abundant on cancer cells. The light emitted by the tags is usually in the near infrared, allowing detection by visualization of tumor cells up to about two centimeters below the tissue surface, depending on the type of tissue. Tissues marked with these fluorescent tags can be imaged in real time, during surgery, with relatively inexpensive and portable equipment. Data from additional clinical trials has shown that it also has the potential to help doctors detect tumours; for example, following a positive or ambiguous X-ray finding; during non-surgical inspections of patients’ lungs by bronchoscopy, when physicians use a scope to investigate passages through a person’s lungs.

The new grant-funded research project aims to develop improved beacon molecules for NSCLC and the imaging equipment that goes with it, and then test them in clinical trials. Collaborating researchers include Philip Low, PhD, of Purdue University, professor of chemistry and biochemistry, who will help develop new lead molecules; Shuming Nie, PhD, of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, professor of bioengineering, and Viktor Gruev, PhD, professor of electrical and computer engineering, who will develop sensitive near-infrared cameras. Bruce Rosengard, MD, of Johnson & Johnson, will also help develop miniaturized chips for bronchoscopic detection of light emitted from tumor locator beacons. Clinical trials of the new technology will be conducted at Penn Medicine, led by Singhal and Edward Delikatny, PhD, professor of radiology and director of translational research at the Center for Precision Surgery.

“Complete resection is the best outcome for patients, and the goal of this program is to improve the odds of achieving that without unnecessary tissue removal,” said Ronald DeMatteo MD, John Rhea Barton Professor of Surgery and Director from Penn’s Department of Surgery.

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