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UM scientists invent pill to diagnose breast cancer

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Greg Thurber and the University of Michigan
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A microscopic image of a breast tumor growing in a mouse that shows the imaging agent in red.

University of Michigan researchers have invented a pill that will light up cancer cells under infrared light. The pill contains a combination of a dye and a molecule that targets breast cancer cells. They’ve tested it successfully in mice and published their findings in the journal Molecular Pharmaceutics.

Greg Thurber is an assistant professor of chemical and biomedical engineering at UM. He believes the pill will not only be a more sensitive and accurate test for early cancer, but that it will be very safe. That’s because the ingredients in the pill have already been individually shown to be very safe.

“The idea behind this is we can detect individual molecules on tumors to give us a much more specific signal to tell us whether a tumor is cancerous, and needs to be removed, or benign,” says Thurber.

Mammograms miss about one in every five breast cancers, according to the American Cancer Society, and false positives are common. A sensitive, pill-based diagnostic test could become an alternative to mammography.

The UM group chose breast cancer as an initial target for the test, but it can be customized for many different cancers or diseases. That’s because the component that directs the dye to the breast cancer cells could be exchanged for one that targets other types of cells. Thurber says that rheumatoid arthritis is an example of a disease where the same approach could be used.

Next steps for development of the pill would include testing it in larger animals. Eventually, in order to be developed and sold as a diagnostic test, it would need to undergo safety and toxicity testing.

 

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