Imaging agent illuminates lung cancer tumors

FDA clears new use of imaging agent to pave the way for surgeons in lung cancer surgery

WEST LAFAYETTE, Indiana – Surgery, particularly surgery to remove cancerous tumors, relies on a variety of instruments and techniques, as well as the skill of the surgeon. Now the new imaging agent Cytalux is supposed to make the operation to remove lung cancer tumors a little more precise.

The inside of the human body notoriously doesn’t look like an anatomy textbook, lacking the bright color coding to differentiate between tissues and organs. Based on fundamental intellectual property developed at Purdue University and published by On Target Laboratories, Cytalux is helping to make tumors easier and more instantly identifiable by illuminating them, making them glow against healthy, benign tissue like beacons against a night sky leaves.

Philip Low (rhymes with “now”), Purdue’s Presidential Scholar for Drug Discovery and Ralph C. Corley Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at the College of Science, is an inventor of the drug.

“Non-small cell lung cancer is one of the deadliest cancers,” Low said. “The only absolute cure for lung cancer is the surgical removal of all malignant tissue from the patient. Once it has metastasized, it is generally fatal.”

Lung cancer is the second most commonly diagnosed cancer in the world, accounting for more than a quarter of all cancer deaths in the United States each year. When a patient is diagnosed with non-small cell lung cancer, the prognosis is often grim: only 7% have a chance of living five years.

The importance of removing all malignant tissue, the difficulty in distinguishing cancerous tissue from healthy tissue, and the prevalence of this type of lung cancer make the use of Cytalux in lung cancer surgery a welcome development. Low, a chemist by trade, addresses these issues with his expertise in chemical reactions.

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Cytalux uses the unique chemistry of cancer cells to make the tumors glow. Cancer cells divide quickly, much faster than normal cells. To do this, they need folic acid, a type of B vitamin – and lots of it. The genius of Cytalux is that after it is given intravenously to a patient prior to surgery, it labels this folate compound with a fluorescent dye. The cancer cells reach for the folate, but they also end up being marked with the fluorescent dye. These cells then fluoresce under near-infrared light during surgery. Low explains further how the drug works in this YouTube video.

The newly approved use of Cytalux, originally developed to target ovarian cancer, has the potential to improve outcomes for thousands of patients by helping surgeons visualize otherwise undetected cancerous tissue in 24% of lung cancer patients in a clinical trial.

“Cancer cells have a tremendous appetite for this vitamin, and we exploited their hunger for folic acid by adding a fluorescent dye to it,” Low said. “Not only does the drug allow the surgeon to see the cancer, but it can also help surgeons avoid removing tissue. Being able to avoid cutting healthy tissue can be just as important as removing unhealthy tissue.”

Low and his team continue to develop imaging tools to make it easier to detect and remove cancerous tumors. He hopes that in the future, all solid cancers will have a targeted fluorescent marker to guide surgeons.

“We are leading the way in this effort,” Low said. “We are pioneers. Not only were we the first tumor-targeting fluorescent dye to be approved by the FDA, we’ve developed a second one that’s hot on its heels. We are also working on other tumor-targeted fluorescent dyes to target many other types of cancer.”

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Low conducts his research as part of the Purdue Center for Cancer Research. The center is one of only seven basic science laboratory cancer centers recognized by the National Cancer Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health. The center brings together more than 110 researchers in Purdue who study cancer at the cellular level.

Low and his team announced the imaging agent innovation to the Purdue Research Foundation’s Office of Technology Commercialization. OTC applied for patent protection for the intellectual property and licensed it to On Target Laboratories of West Lafayette, Indiana. Low is the Founder and Chief Science Officer of On Target Laboratories.

About the College of Science

Purdue University’s College of Science is dedicated to the constant search for the mathematical and scientific knowledge that forms the very foundation of innovation. Nearly 350 tenure-track faculty conduct world-changing research and provide transformative education to more than 1,500 graduate students and 5,200 undergraduate students. Visit to see how we are developing practical solutions to today’s toughest challenges with majors in Life Sciences, Science, Computer Science, Mathematics and Data Science.

About Purdue University

Purdue University is a leading public research organization developing practical solutions to today’s toughest challenges. For each of the last five years, Purdue has been ranked by US News & World Report as one of the 10 Most Innovative Universities in the United States, delivering world-changing research and extraordinary discoveries. Purdue is committed to real-world, hands-on and online learning, providing transformative education for all. Committed to affordability and accessibility, Purdue has frozen tuition and most fees at 2012-13 levels, allowing more students than ever to graduate debt-free. See how Purdue never stops making the next big leap at

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Author/media contact: Brittany Steff, [email protected]

Source: Phil Low, [email protected]

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