Using IR light, dyes and gold nanoparticles, SpectroPen finds tumors so surgeons can cut them out., November/December 2010, by Aaron Saenz  —   Even to experienced surgeons, the inside of your body can look like one indecipherable undulating pink mass of flesh. When removing a tumor it’s crucially important to extract all the cancerous cells, but how do you know you’ve gotten them all when many look just like healthy cells? You use a SpectroPen. Developed by researchers at Georgia Tech, Emory University, and UPenn, the SpectroPen uses infrared light and a fluorescence detector to locate special dyes and gold particles that have been injected into the body. These particles and dyes greatly prefer tumor cells, and the SpectroPen lets surgeons clearly locate cancerous tissue so they can remove it. Studies with rodents demonstrated that the SpectroPen could find tumors less than 1mm in size! The technology is already in use for surgeries with dogs, and clinical trials for humans could be starting soon. Watch out, cancer, you can’t hide from us anymore.

In the future, excising tumors may involve pumping your body full of gold. SpectroPen operates by detecting artificial agents bonded to tumor cells. These agents come in two parts: a dye that fluoresces in IR (indocynanine green), and gold nanoparticles. Those nanoparticles are coated in a polymer attached to the dye and connected to an antibody. This antibody seeks out cancerous cells (which have ‘leaky’ cell membranes). The SpectroPen shines IR light and uses a fluorescence detector to see what starts to glow. The gold nanoparticles enhance the dye’s glow so that tumors shine with 10 times the signal of healthy cells. Once the surgeon uses the SpectroPen to find cancer cells, it’s pretty easy to cut them out of the body.

That process of detection is interesting enough, but the way that doctors tested the SpectroPen is even cooler. As described in Analytical Chemistry, surgeons gave mice human breast cancer cells to grow in their bodies. The cancer cells were spliced with a firefly gene that allowed them to glow on their own! So, scientists used their dyes and nanoparticles with the SpectroPen to see what cancer they could detect. To double check their results they activated the firefly gene (with a special solution) and compared the SpectroPen results to the visibly glowing firefly-enhanced cells. The two matched up very well.

In your body, splicing cancer cells with a firefly gene would be too difficult – how would you find all the cancer cells? However, injecting the SpectroPen’s dyes and gold nanoparticles is fairly simple. The comparison test between the two show that the SpectroPen could be an accurate, but much more realistic, way of detecting cancer during surgery.

Technologies like the SpectroPen give me a lot of hope about fighting cancer. Back in February of 2009, Catherine Mohr gave an impressive talk about the future of surgery at TED. She mostly discussed how robots would increase our skill while decreasing our footprint for operations, but one of her predictions always stuck with me: the future of surgery will be about detection as much as it is about cutting. SpectroPen fits in line exactly with that sentiment. It’s not a better way of cutting, it’s a better way of knowing where to cut. That’s crucially important.

While it may be many years before SpectroPen could be available for surgery with humans, it is already moving on that path. According to Georgia Tech News, Sunil Singhal from UPenn is applying for clinical trials with human patients. James Provenzale from Duke University is working with veterinarians as they use SpectroPen for operations on dogs. The indocynanine dye was previously approved for heart and liver surgeries, and gold nanoparticles are a staple of cutting edge cancer research. There’s no obvious roadblock to developing SpectroPen for human surgeries, it’s just going to take time to prove it works consistently. There’s a good chance that in the years ahead, your doctors will be using SpectroPen, or devices very similar to it, to find and remove the tumors in your body. Inject, glow, cut – not a bad strategy for defeating cancer.

[image credit: Mohs et al 2010 Analytical Chemistry]
[sources: Georgia Tech University News, Mohs et al 2010 Analytical Chemistry]

PET image of T cells attacking cancer in a mouse; yellow arrows indicate lymph nodes, blue arrow indicates tumor cells, by Aaron Saenz  —  What if you could not only beat cancer, but watch your body do it? Researchers at UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center are using gene therapy to teach immune cells how to attack cancer, but that’s now all. By inserting a “reporter gene” that glows under a Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scan, researchers can watch in real-time as the genetically modified immune cells seek out and destroy tumors within the body.

Gene therapy uses a vector (typically an innocuous virus or retrovirus) to insert new genes into the body’s cells. Cancerous cells are usually ignored by the immune system, which does not distinguish them from healthy cells and allows them to divide uncontrollably. The UCLA researcher team, led by Dr. Antoni Ribas, used a crippled virus similar to HIV to upgrade the DNA of lymphocytes; this makes them produce T-cell receptors that allow them to identify and destroy melanoma cells in mice. They also added in a reporter gene that glows “hot” under PET or bioluminescence imaging – this allows them to follow the engineered lymphocytes in real time as they kill cancerous cells.

Ribas’ team performed their research on melanoma grown in mice. After the mice were initially injected with the altered lymphoma cells, PET scans revealed that they had accumulated around and started attacking melanoma tumors after two or three days. The mice were scanned periodically for the next ten days, as scientists confirmed that the lymphocytes were indeed destroying the cancer. We recently reported on a similar study that used reporter genes to follow stem cells injected into the hearts of mice.

Being able to follow particular cells as they travel through the body will be an important step forward for gene therapy research. Currently, if a particular cell line doesn’t work, it’s unclear which step in the immune response failed (i.e. which step to focus on). Reporter genes would allow doctors to determine whether or not injected cells reach their target, even if the cancer isn’t being destroyed. Treatments can then be catered around the specifics of each patient’s response to the gene therapy.

Bioluminescence Imaging (BLI) of T cells moving through the body

Dr. Ribas and his team are now working on developing a vector that is safe to use in humans, and he estimates that one will be ready within a year. While mouse studies showed the lymphocytes attacking cancer cells within days, human treatments will probably take longer. Engineering the lymphocytes will also take more work; the mice were injected with about one million cells, but the human body will need about one billion to generate a comparable result. The reporter gene labeling is safe and the same technique can be applied directly to humans.

Gene therapy is usually employed to fix or replace problematic genes within the genome. We recently reported on gene therapy trials for bubble boy syndrome which will aim to fix defective immune systems by inserting functional genes that code for lymphocytes. But it’s interesting to note a new trend emerging, beyond just fixing mutations or broken genes. Gene therapy can do more than patch up mistakes in the genome: it can actually be used for upgrades. The body doesn’t normally fight cancer – now it does. Immune cells don’t normally glow so your doctor can watch them – now they do.

What other kinds of genome upgrades might be on the way?

Here’s Our Choice of. . .

Eleven of the 50 Best Inventions of 2010

Flying cars! Jet packs! Lasers that zap malaria-carrying mosquitoes! Here are the year’s biggest (and coolest) breakthroughs in science, technology and the arts

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1)   EyeWriter

By Kayla Webley

Jamie Chung for TIME

How do you communicate when your brain is active but your body isn’t? The EyeWriter, a collaboration from the Ebeling Group, the Not Impossible Foundation and Graffiti Research Lab, uses low-cost eye-tracking glasses and open-source software to allow people suffering from any kind of neuromuscular syndrome to write and draw by tracking their eye movement and translating it to lines on a screen. The device was created for Tony “Tempt” Quan, an L.A.-based graffiti artist who was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease in 2003. After trying the EyeWriter — the first time he’d drawn anything since he was fully paralyzed — Quan said, “It feels like taking a breath after being held underwater for five minutes.”

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2)   The Mosquito Laser

By Jeffrey Kluger

Nathan Pegram / Intellectual Ventures

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It’s been a bad year to be a mosquito. The world’s most annoying insect is responsible for 250 million cases of malaria per year — and 1 million deaths. But scientists at the University of Arizona have genetically engineered a mosquito that’s immune to the Plasmodium parasite, the malaria-causing agent it transmits with its bite. The next step is to make the new mosquito hardier than the ordinary kind, then release it into the wild (perhaps within 10 years), where it will displace the deadly variety. Meanwhile, former Microsoft exec Nathan Myhrvold, working with the Intellectual Ventures Laboratory, is developing a laser that can zap mosquitoes without harming other insects or humans. The laser targets the mosquitoes’ size and signature wing beat and sends the bugs down in a burst of flame, making their deaths good for public health and, well, kind of cool.

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3)   NeoNurture Incubator

By Alice Park

Jamie Chung for TIME

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The genius of the NeoNurture incubator, developed by university students in the U.S., is that it employs an underutilized resource (old car parts) to address a critical need: functioning incubators to nurture premature newborns. Headlights provide heat; a repurposed dashboard fan circulates air; a door-chime and signal-light assembly is rejiggered into an alarm system that alerts caregivers when things go awry with the heating mechanism. The device can even be powered from a motorcycle battery. Car engineers have nothing on these guys.

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4)   eLegs Exoskeleton

By Alice Park

Photographs by Bartholomew Cooke for TIME

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For paraplegic patients, being able to stand — not to mention take a few steps — under their own power is a cruelly unattainable goal. Or at least it has been. But the makers of eLegs, an innovative exoskeleton, are hoping to change that, one step at a time. The robotic prosthetic legs use artificial intelligence to “read” the wearer’s arm gestures via a set of crutches, simulating a natural human gait. It’s the first such device to do so without a tether, and it was inspired by military exoskeletons that soldiers strap on to lift heavy packs. The device requires some getting used to, so it will initially be available only at rehabilitation centers for use with a trained physical therapist, but it may hit the home market by 2013.

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5)   First Synthetic Cell

By Alice Park

Thomas Deerinck and Mark Ellisman / NCMIR / UCSD

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Creating life in the lab? It wasn’t such a stretch for J. Craig Venter, who successfully co-mapped the human genome in 2001. Even while completing that feat, the genetic cartographer wondered if he could string together DNA and make life of the bacterial kind from scratch. So like a biological Lego builder, he started with off-the-shelf chemicals and, after 15 years of painstaking trial and error, managed to reconstruct the genome of a bacterium that successfully “booted up,” dividing and replicating just like any other bug. Such synthetic life, he hopes, will make it possible to, among other things, generate new forms of man-made biofuel and speed up vaccine production by making it easier to create large amounts of whichever strains of influenza are circulating in a particular season.

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6)   Lab-Grown Lungs

By Alice Park

Jamie Chung for TIME

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Growing new body parts has always been more science fiction than science reality, but that balance may quickly be shifting, at least in the lab. Relying on more sophisticated biosimulators that can better mimic body conditions, researchers have re-created the delicate architecture of a rat lung accurately enough for it to assume 95% of a normal lung’s inhaling and exhaling functions. The key to their respiratory success was starting with a skeletal rat-lung template, including a matrix of blood vessels and collagen and other connective tissue, then seeding it with stem cells and nutrients to generate lifelike tissue that exchanged oxygen and carbon dioxide just like normal lung tissue. The ultimate goal is to replicate the feat on a larger scale: to replace enough human lung tissue to aid patients with emphysema or lung cancer.

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7)   3-D Bioprinter

By Jeffrey Kluger

Jameson Simpson for TIME

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Spare parts are available for virtually any machine ever invented. So why not the human body? San Diego–based companies Invetech and Organovo have developed what amounts to a dot-matrix printer for human organs. The device, small enough to fit into a sterile biosafety cabinet, consists of two printheads — one that sprays out a gel that forms a sort of armature for an organ and another that fills in that scaffolding with living cells. The printing tip positions cells with a precision within microns. Livers, kidneys and other replacement components — including teeth — could be built on demand, with no wait for a donor and less risk of rejection, since the cells are harvested straight from the patient. No word yet on a parts-and-labor warranty.

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8)   Faster-Growing Salmon

By Bryan Walsh

Aquabounty Technologies

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Americans love heart-healthy salmon, but with wild populations dwindling, most of the salmon we now eat is farmed, not caught. The problem is that salmon make bad farm animals; it takes 3 lb. of feed to grow 1 lb. of salmon. AquaBounty’s solution: splice in a gene from Chinook salmon with DNA from an eellike creature called an ocean pout. AquAdvantage Atlantic salmon can grow twice as fast, making them easier to farm. Environmentalists wary of the first edible genetically engineered animal aren’t so sure, however, and have dubbed the creation Frankenfish. A government hearing on the salmon ended inconclusively, but barring any changes, the fish could be headed to market soon.

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9)   Deep Green Underwater Kite

By Eben Harrell


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Swedish company Minesto’s underwater kite resembles a child’s toy as it swoops and dives in ocean currents. But since seawater is 800 times as dense as air, the small turbine attached to the kite — which is tethered to the ocean floor — can generate 800 times more energy than if it were in the sky. Minesto calls the technology Deep Green and says it can generate 500 kilowatts of power even in calm waters; the design could increase the market for tidal power by 80%, the company says. The first scale model will be unveiled next year off the coast of Northern Ireland.

View the full list for “The 50 Best Inventions of 2010”

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10)   Body Powered Devices

By Eben Harrell

Plum Digital / Got Wind

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Everything we do generates power — about 1 watt per breath, 70 watts per step. This year, Michael McAlpine of Princeton University and colleagues figured out how to turn locomotion into power by embedding piezoelectric crystals into a flexible, biocompatible rubberlike material that, when bent, allows the crystals to produce energy. Put the crystals in shoes, say, or implant them directly into the body and they could produce enough power to charge personal electronics or internal medical devices. Elsewhere, telecommunications provider Orange introduced a prototype of Orange Power Wellies — rubber boots that convert heat into current. Campers at Britain’s Glastonbury Festival were the first to demo the footwear. (With the current model, it takes 12 hours of walking to charge a cell phone for an hour.) Of course, if you assemble enough people in a tight space, they don’t even need to move to generate energy: in Paris, engineers have captured the warmth generated by bodies on the Métro subway to heat a public-housing project on Rue Beaubourg. By 2011, the Métro heating system will cut carbon dioxide emissions from the housing project’s heating system by a third.

View the full list for “The 50 Best Inventions of 2010”

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11)   The English-Teaching Robot

By Krista Mahr

Koo Sung Soo for TIME

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Call it the job terminator. South Korea, which employs some 30,000 foreigners to teach English, has plans for a new addition to its language classrooms: the English-speaking robot. Students in a few schools started learning English from the robo-teachers late last year; by the end of this year, the government hopes to have them in 18 more schools. The brightly colored, squat androids are part of an effort to keep South Korean students competitive in English. Not surprisingly, the proposal has worried a few human teachers — and with good reason. Experts say the bots could eventually phase out flesh-and-blood foreign English teachers altogether.

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