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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — “Am I going to glow in the dark? Will I be green?” Carol Giandonato had asked when her oncologist told her he wanted to make her cancer cells turn bright, fluorescent green.

Her surgeon just explained that the cancer lesions would be illuminated during surgery — and with this approach, her surgeon had found a hidden tumor that would have otherwise never been detected.

Giandonato was one of the first patients for the new imaging drug Cytalux, designed to help surgeons find and remove ovarian cancer tumors and cells. It was recently approved by the FDA on November 29, the first tumor-targeted fluorescent agent to have approval.

A drug used for fluorescent imaging during ovarian cancer surgeries, which was just approved by the FDA, lights up cancer cells “like stars against a night sky,” says Philip Low, Purdue University’s Presidential Scholar for Drug Discovery and Ralph C. Corley Distinguished Professor of Chemistry.  (Purdue University photo/courtesy On Target Laboratories)

Philip Low with Purdue University is an inventor of the drug, and he describes what it does in a YouTube video. He had said the “lesions light up like stars against a night sky” when a surgeon turns on a near-infrared light used in surgery.

“In the pivotal ovarian cancer trials, surgeons were able to find additional malignant tissue or improve the practice of surgery in 27% of all the patients,” Low said in a press release. “It seems to me that future surgeries are going to very heavily rely on this technology.”

Cancer cells divide faster than normal tissue, requiring folate (a type of B vitamin) to do so. Low’s invention tags a folate compound with a fluorescent dye and administers it to a patient before surgery, allowing surgeons to be more precise.

“Cancer cells have an enormous appetite for this vitamin, and we exploited their greed for folic acid by attaching a fluorescent dye to it,” Low said. “Cancer lesions are often removed very crudely by cutting large margins around that cancer tissue and resecting a lot of healthy tissue. That can often be damaging to the patient, especially when the healthy tissue is very valuable — and in most cases it is.”

Low had said cancer surgery is moving at a rapid pace into noninvasive and precise techniques, such as endoscopic and robotic surgeries. The imaging agents in Cytalux will be pivotal for these procedures.

“The technology we’re pioneering is very clearly front and center in making this possible,” Low said.

The majority of the side effects of Cytalux’s clinical trials were reported to be mild to moderate. Side effects include nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, flushing, indigestion, chest discomfort, itching and possible allergic reactions. Additional important safety information is available on Cytalux’s website.