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Pinpointing Tumor Margins with Nanoprobes

H. Bryan Neel III MD, PhD Distinguished Research Lecture
2:30 pm, Today
New Orleans Theater B

Baran D. Sumer, MD

Cancers of the head and neck impact some of the anatomy that most identifies us as who we are: our faces and voices.

“When you meet somebody, the first thing you notice—the most visible part of their body—is their face,” said Baran D. Sumer, MD, a head and neck cancer surgeon at the University of Southwestern Medical Center. “Our surgeries affect that.”

In order to do as little visible damage as possible and preserve function as well as remove all or as much of the cancer tissue as possible, head and neck cancer surgeons must minimize the amount of normal tissue and maximize the amount of cancerous tissue they remove. To accomplish that, they need information, he said, “on where the tumor is and where it isn’t.” Dr. Sumer will discuss a new technology being tested that shows promise for delivering that information to surgeons in real time.

There are many technologies in use today for figuring out where cancerous tumors are, he noted, such as CT scans, MRI scans, and PET scans. Although these can show surgeons where tumors are, they aren’t as specific about cancerous tissue at the margins of those tumors. That’s where pH transistor nanoparticles come in.

Building on the idea of fluorescing tumors, Dr. Sumer and his research partner at UT Southwestern, chemist Jinming Gao, PhD, developed a nanoprobe that targets the acidic pH of cancerous cells. When the nanoprobe detects the acidic pH of cancerous cells, it lights them up, definitively visually pinpointing the cancer in real time—as the surgeon is performing surgery.

“We have harnessed the nanoprobes and the special properties of these nanoprobes to create what we call an on/off signal … that basically takes that pH signal—that difference between normal and abnormal pH—and converts it into a yes or no answer, converts it into a digital signal,” he said. If there’s cancer, the cells light up, but if there isn’t, the cells remain dark.

“When the surgeon is armed with (this) information,” he said, “they can cut the tumor out more accurately, which will improve outcomes with respect to form and function, and also get all the cancer out.”

Dr. Sumer will get into the fine details of how nanotechnology works during his lecture. Part of that deep dive will include discussion of information theory, molecular cooperativity, and how it can be used in cancer imaging, distinguishing between analog and digital signals, and why digital is superior to analog.