Glowing cells guide ovarian cancer surgery

In collaboration with the Press Association

Dutch surgeons have performed the first ever surgical procedures on ovarian cancer patients using new technology that illuminates ovarian cancer cells, making it easier to detect and remove tumours.

It is hoped the technique will improve the results of surgery as it allows doctors to spot tiny tumours that may not otherwise be visible.

The flourescent technology involves a cancer cell 'homing device' and a fluorescent imaging agent, created by Professor Philip Low and colleagues at Purdue University in the US.

Professor Low says the method could help surgeons to remove more cancerous tissue, giving patients a better prospect of successful chemotherapy or immunotherapy.

The first surgery to be performed using the technique was carried out at the University of Groningen in The Netherlands on a patient as part of a clinical trial. The patient was injected with a combination of the fluorescent imaging agent and a form of folic acid two hours before surgery.

The substance attaches itself to ovarian cancer cells, allowing a special device called a multispectral fluorescence camera to illuminate the cells on a screen during surgery.

Surgeons reported finding an average of 34 tumour deposits using this technique, compared with an average of seven tumour deposits using traditional methods.

The findings have been published in the journal Nature Medicine.

Prof Low said: "Ovarian cancer is notoriously difficult to see, and this technique allowed surgeons to spot a tumour 30 times smaller than the smallest they could detect using standard techniques."

He added: "With ovarian cancer it is clear that the more cancer you can remove, the better the prognosis for the patient.

"This is why we chose to begin with ovarian cancer. It seemed like the best place to start to make a difference in people&aposs lives."

Professor Peter Johnson, Cancer Research UK's chief clinician, said: "We know that one of the most important things for people with ovarian cancer is that as much of it as possible should be removed by an operation, and that the better this can be done, the higher the chances of survival.

"This is one reason why it is so important for women to see their doctor quickly if they have suspicious symptoms. This new technique for detecting tiny amounts of cancer during the course of an operation may be a promising way to improve the results of surgery in the future."

Oliver Childs, senior science information officer at Cancer Research UK, said: "Surgery can be a hugely important part of cancer treatment, and it's great to see work to try to make it more effective. It's important to say that this is an early, proof-of-concept trial, and not every tumour was detected using this technology, so larger studies are needed before this technique will be used more widely"

Copyright Press Association 2011


  • van Dam, G. et al (2011). Intraoperative tumor-specific fluorescence imaging in ovarian cancer by folate receptor-α targeting: first in-human results Nature Medicine DOI: 10.1038/nm.2472