New light-emitting implant zaps cancer tumors with incredible precision

light emitting cancer chip screen shot 2018 07 17 at 16 40
Toshinori Fujie

Remember that light-emitting tracking device that Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character memorably pulls out of his nose in the 1990 movie Total Recall? A similar device might one day be implanted in your body to help you battle cancer.

The implantable device, which is held in place by sticky bioadhesive “nanosheets,” was developed by researchers at Japan’s Waseda University. It consists of an LED chip that’s wirelessly powered by NFC, the same technology used for mobile payment solutions like Apple Pay.

When tested under the skin of mice with cancer, the device was shown to be capable of effectively shrinking their tumors. It does this by using something called photodynamic therapy (PDT), a treatment which is already being used to fight some cancers. Photodynamic therapy requires the patient to take a drug that makes certain cells vulnerable to light. An endoscope is then used to shine light on the tumor for up to 45 minutes. However, this approach can make it difficult to control dosage, which is where the Waseda University’s new technology comes into play.

“The device can be easily pasted to the target tumor owing to the ultra-flexibility of [our] nanosheets, without conventional suturing,” Professor Toshinori Fujie, who led the research, told Digital Trends. “The beauty of this study is we succeeded in decreasing the light intensity, about 1,000-fold smaller than the conventional therapy, [so as to] avoid thermal damage of normal tissue — yet realized effective treatment of cancer by local light irradiation, thanks to the bio-adhesive nanosheet.”

According to Fujie, the approach could one day be used to help treat cancerous tumors in parts of the body like the brain or pancreas. These organs make it risky to use conventional cancer-treatment approaches, such as surgery or radiotherapy, because of the possibility of damaging surrounding healthy tissues, nerves, and blood vessels.

“Definitely, we should push forward this technology from benchside to bedside to improve the quality of life of patients,” Fujie continued. “We hope to start the translational research as soon as we solve the legal regulation in medical device developments. To this end, our next research is to consolidate the protocol and clinical design to show the effectiveness in the appropriate lesions, which cannot be accessed by conventional PDT, such as hard-to-detect micro-tumors and deeply located lesions.”

A paper describing the work was recently published in the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering.

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