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Canadian technology poised to benefit cancer patients, change imaging landscape

Renewal funding from the Terry Fox Research Institute will enable a Toronto-based research group to change the cancer imaging landscape by preventing overtreatment and, consequently, decreasing the negative side-effects that patients often experience.

Dr. Gang Zheng together with Drs. Brian Wilson and Jon Irish (Princess Margaret Cancer Centre) are leading the TFRI-funded project, which was recently renewed for five years with funding totalling $5.5 million. The team has developed two Canadian technology platforms with ground-breaking work on porphysome nanoparticles and photoacoustic imaging.

“This grant will allow us to utilize a Canadian invention to truly benefit patients,” says Dr. Zheng. “Terry Fox funding has allowed us to assemble a major multidisciplinary team of experts, and we hope to soon bring the benefits of these new technologies to patients.”

The team is focusing on prostate and thyroid cancers, two diseases currently lacking minimally-invasive, safe and effective destruction of tumours. The conventional medical response for these cancers 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.

For example, overtreatment of thyroid cancer can leave patients with unnecessary scars, nerve damage that may affect the voice, and dependence on hormones for the rest of their lives. To counter this, Dr. Zheng and his team are using their technologies to develop an new treatment modality using light that is absorbed by nanoparticles to destroy tumor tissue without damaging normal tissue.

“The majority of prostate and thyroid cancers won’t kill you, but some will need treatment,” Dr. Zheng notes. “If we can avoid invasive options like surgery for most patients, we can eliminate harmful side effects - and the economic burden for Canada will be decreased by this as well.”

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.

The nanoparticles they've developed are uniquely flexible, allowing researchers to select the best design to meet the particular clinical need.

“We can address each clinical unmet need with this nanoparticle, with a single particle,” he says. “Specialists and experts from a wide range of fields have come together for the project -- plus this is a purely Canadian innovation. I really think this technology will be a major winner down the road – we are very, very excited about this.” 

Previously Funded Project: The Terry Fox New Frontiers Program Project in Nanoparticle-Enhanced Photoacoustic Imaging for Cancer Localization and Therapeutic Guidance (2013-2016)