Researchers have discovered a way to detect and attack cancer cells using technology traditionally reserved for solar power.
The results, published in the Scientific Reports, showcases dramatic improvements in light-activated fluorescent dyes for disease diagnosis, image-guided surgery, and site-specific tumour treatment.
“We’ve tested this concept in breast, lung cancer and skin cancer cell lines and mouse models, and so far it’s all looking remarkably promising,” Sophia Michigan State University biochemistry and molecular biologist.
While the cancer applications hold the most possibility, their findings have potential beyond the field of oncology, said Richard, the Johansen Crosby Endowed Professor of chemical engineering and materials science.
“This work has the potential to transform fluorescent probes for broad societal impact through applications ranging from biomedicine to photocatalysis — the acceleration of chemical reactions with light,” he said.
“Our solar research inspired this cancer project, and in turn, focusing on cancer cells has advanced our solar cell research; it’s been an amazing feedback loop,” he added.
Prior to the Lunts’ combined effort, fluorescent dyes used for therapeutics and diagnostics, aka “theranostics,” had shortcomings, such as low brightness, high toxicity to cells, poor tissue penetration and unwanted side effects.
By optoelectronically tuning organic salt nanoparticles used as theranostics, the Lunts were able to control them in a range of cancer studies.
Coaxing the nanoparticles into the nontoxic zone resulted in enhanced imaging, while pushing them into the phototoxic — or light-activated — range produced effective on-site tumour treatment.
The key was learning to control the electronics of their photoactive molecules independently from their optical properties and then making the leap to apply this understanding in a new way to a seemingly unrelated field.
Richard had recently discovered the ability to electronically tune these salts from his work in converting photovoltaic into the solar glass.
Sophia had long studied metabolic pathways unique to cancer cells. It was when the Lunts were discussing solar glass during a walk that they made the connection: Molecules active in the solar cells might also be used to more effectively target and kill cancer cells.