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Combining light and sound to give new hope to cancer patients

This project has been completed

When you hear the words “light” and “sound” the image of a dazzling play on Broadway may come to mind. You might not think of combining them with tiny organic particles (nanoparticles) to offer new diagnostic and treatment options for people with prostate and esophageal cancer.

Yet, that’s exactly what a team of Toronto researchers led by Dr. Brian Wilson at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre are doing.

Photoacoustic imaging can produce high-resolution images of tumours from sound waves generated by sending short pulses of laser light into tissue. The nanoparticles add contrast to these photoacoustic images and make cancerous tissues easier to see.

“We’re taking these two new technologies [photoacoustic imaging and nanoparticles] and developing them to address unmet needs in these two cancers,” says Dr. Brian Wilson, lead investigator on the Terry Fox New Frontiers Program Project Grant in nanoparticle-enhanced photoacoustic imaging.

“Our intention is take the technology into the first in-human studies and show that our methods are feasible. We can then plan further clinical trials and hopefully change medical practice.”

The conventional medical response for prostate cancer is either a “watch and wait” approach for low-risk tumours, or an aggressive surgical approach with side effects that can impair quality of life for patients. Dr. Wilson and his team are using their photo-acoustic technologies to create a method of using a laser to remove cancerous cells, without damaging normal tissue.

Esophageal cancer is a cancer of the pipe connecting the throat and the stomach. It is difficult to detect esophageal cancer early and once it has developed, current treatment involves the complete removal of the esophagus.

“We want to use the technologies to detect changes in the esophagus that are pre-cancerous and at high risk of turning to cancer, so that the clinician can then remove that abnormal tissue during an endoscopy without causing any normal tissue damage,” says Dr. Wilson. “We’re trying to use these technologies to change the balance between benefit and risk for individual patients.”

Dr. Wilson’s work with photoacoustic imaging and nanoparticles can be traced back to two grants he received in 1982, as one of the first recipients of funds raised from Terry Fox’s Marathon of Hope.

“Sometimes you have to wait until the fruit is ripe! The work we did 30 years ago was ahead of its time.  Receiving this [PPG] award is an emotional tying of the loop for me. We’re going to have a new impact with this work but it all started from that original investment,” says Dr. Wilson.