Novel endoscope can find and destroy cancer cells

A new biomedical endoscope under development at the University at Buffalo (UB; New York) could make chemotherapy more efficient, reduce its side effects, and improve treatment of some of the most deadly forms of cancer.

Conventional endoscopic imaging has limitations. Its image contrast is distorted because light scatters and is absorbed by the body. This leads to blurred or low-contrast images of the tumor environment that limit the ability to visualize tumors. To overcome these deficiencies, the new endoscope utilizes spatial frequency domain imaging, which projects patterns of light at different frequencies on the cancer cells. This results in a high-contrast map of the tumor environment.

Then, to destroy the tumors, chemotherapy drugs will be delivered intravenously. But unlike conventional treatment, the drugs will be encapsulated in tiny liposomes called nanoballoons. This technology, under development by Jonathan Lovell, Ph.D., UB assistant professor of biomedical engineering, carries the drugs to the tumor while shielding them from healthy cells, thus reducing side effects. Upon reaching the cancer cells, doctors strike the nanoballoons with the endoscopic light beam, causing them to pop open and release the drug directly at the tumor.

Related: Light-activated chemotherapy delivery limits side effects

To effectively target the nanoballoons, doctors need to control the light beam. So Ulas Sunar, Ph.D., a research assistant professor in UB's Department of Biomedical Engineering and the principal investigator of a National Institutes of Health grant that is supporting the research, is developing a “digital mask” that adjusts the beam’s intensity as well as manipulates its shape down to micron precision using a computer.

Ulas Sunar, Ph.D.

“The mask is sort of like the Bat signal from Batman movies. It alters the shape of the light,” Sunar says. “At the same time, we’ll be able to control the strength of the light. The combination will allow us to manipulate the beam to target cancer cells with unprecedented accuracy.”

The system could be especially useful for treating ovarian cancer that has spread to the abdomen, as well as cancer in the lungs, gastrointestinal tract, mouth, and other internal organs, Sunar says.

Sunar will spend much of 2015 developing the system, followed by testing on animal models. Upon completion of the grant in 2016, he expects to begin a pilot study with Shashikant Lele, MD, clinical chief of gynecologic oncology at Roswell Park Cancer Institute, and professor of gynecology and obstetrics at the UB School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

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