Cancer Goggles

June 6, 2014

By Medical Discovery News

Cutting people open and sewing them back up for a living is a pretty stressful occupation to begin with, but some surgeons have tougher jobs than others. Cancer surgeons are charged with removing all tumor cells on the first try. But tumor growth can be irregular and it can be hard to distinguish cancer cells from normal cells during an operation. Imaging techniques like MRIs and CT scans can give surgeons a road map to the tumor, but they offer only limited help once an incision has been made.

This is because these images are merely snapshots – a single frame and dimension. Even three-dimensional images can only be viewed one frame at a time. In addition, the inside of the body is dynamic and it takes a skilled surgeon to understand the orientation of tissues and the precise margins where tumor tissue ends and regular tissue begins. 

Because of this challenge, surgeons often have to remove healthy tissue to be sure all tumor cells are gone. This requires a special step: staining the removed tissue then looking at it under a microscope to identify the cells. The surgeon wants to be sure a margin of healthy tissue is removed so no tumor cells remain.

If tumor cells remain, they will grow and second operation may be necessary to remove more cancerous tissue. Again, the removal of additional healthy tissue will be necessary. But what if a surgeon could distinguish cancer cells from normal cells during surgery? It seems impossible. Each cell is microscopic, thousandths of a millimeter. Just observing cells takes special staining and high-powered optics.

But scientists at the University of Missouri and Washington University in St. Louis are working on the impossible. They are developing cancer goggles that will allow surgeons see tumor cells right in the operating room. This new technology uses LS301, a fluorescent dye combined with a short chain of amino acids called peptide, that is only absorbed by cancer cells and glows under infrared light. This dye specifically stains cells from prostrate, colon, breast, and liver cancers among others. Patients can be injected with the dye beforehand and it will last through a procedure.

These special goggles will illuminate cancer cells with LS301 using an infrared light source. A surgeon can distinguish glowing cancer cells from normal cells and observe when they are completely removed. As a result, the surgeon would not need to remove a margin of healthy tissue to be sure all cancerous tissue is gone. This may greatly improve success rates from surgeries to remove cancerous growths. 

Currently, this technique is being perfected in veterinary surgeries to guide the removal of tumors in pets and is not yet ready for use with humans. If effective, it will be a great resource for patients undergoing tumor removal surgery in the future.

For a link to this story, click here.

An Aspirin A Day

March 29, 2013

By Medical Discovery News

New research shows that aspirin truly deserves its nickname as the wonder drug, since now it even helps fight cancer. It’s naturally found in willow bark, which has been used as herbal medicine for thousands of years. People have been taking aspirin in its current for over 100 years.

Ancient Greeks used ground willow bark to treat fevers and control pain during in childbirth. Then, in the early 1800s, English physicians and scientists wanting to discover the key to willow bark’s effect isolated its active component, salicin. In 1890 a German chemist named Friedrich Bayer (sound familiar?) created a synthetic salicin molecule called acetylsalicylic acid. This derivative was less irritating to the stomach than willow bark and became the modern form that lines drugstore shelves. 

Since then, researchers have been finding even more medical uses for aspirin. In the 1960s, scientists began exploring aspirin’s ability to thin blood and tested its usefulness in preventing heart disease. To summarize many extensive clinical trials, it is now generally believed that taking low-dose aspirin on a daily basis helps reduce the chances of a second heart attack (but not the first) in men. But these studies also revealed some negative side effects of regular aspirin use, including bleeding ulcers and hemorrhaging retinas. 

Recent studies may have uncovered another, quite wonderful, effect of aspirin – reducing the risk of some common cancers. Initial studies found the occurrence of colorectal cancer was lower in those who took aspirin regularly. These studies followed individuals who took aspirin for its cardiovascular benefits, but also ended up decreasing their risk of developing certain tumors by almost 40 percent. And low-dose aspirin also appeared to reduce the spread of tumors in people with established cancer.

In a 2010 British study, those taking daily aspirin for at least five years reduced their risk of dying from colorectal, esophageal, stomach, pancreatic, brain, lung, and prostate cancers by more than 20 percent. These studies also cited issues of bleeding in the stomach and retinas, especially in older individuals. New guidelines for aspirin therapy suggest starting an aspirin regime at age 50 and stopping by age 70 in order to reduce this risk.

Several properties of aspirin might explain its cancer-fighting abilities. Aspirin inhibits enzymes called cyclooxygenases or COX, which normally convert a type of fatty acid into compounds that protect the stomach lining. This may be why aspirin can lead to stomach irritation, but may also explain why aspirin works well as an anti-inflammatory, since COX can contribute to inflammation. And preventing inflammation also prevents the growth of tumor cells.

Given its ability to combat the nation’s two most serious killers, the potential for expanding low-dose aspirin therapy looks positive. Overall, these results have scientists on the verge of declaring aspirin the first “general anticancer drug.” Of course, individuals should consult their physician before starting any drug regime. 

For a link to this story, click here.

Husband Keeps Wife’s Legacy

Says her life and death should teach others to have colonoscopies

By Pamela Bond

Victoria Advocate

March 24, 2008

Despite working as a nurse for 42 years and encouraging her patients to have colonoscopies, Gerrie An Toellner never had one herself.

“She said how odd it was that she had not had one eariler, even though she worked in the medical field,” said her husband, John Toellner, 81, of Palacios. “She always put her patients first. She didn’t take enough time for herself.”

Doctors diagnosed Gerrie, then 67, with colon cancer that had already spread to her liver in January 2004, shortly after she retired as the director of surgical services at DeTar Hospital. She died on Dec. 30, 2005, but her husband said that she is still saving lives with her story even after her death.

“She told everyone she knew to get a colonoscopy,” John said. “No one escaped her words.”

John now does the same and wrote a letter to the editor published in the Advocate shortly after Gerrie’s death on the subject. Colon cancer affects one in 18 people, making colorectal cancer the second highest killer out of all cancers, but it can be prevented by regular screenings.

John, 73 at the time, and Gerrie, 63, first met in an airport in 2000, when they both took a trip to Germany to see the Passion Play. The two spent a week together and he called her when they were back in Texas to ask her to have lunch with him.

The two married on March 30, 2002, Easter weekend. Gerrie was widowed by her first husband, Perry Martin Lewis, and had three children. John had been married twice before but lost both wives, Janice and Dorothy, to a heart attack and bone cancer.

The first years of their marriage were happy. Both were retired, and they took trips and spent time with their families. But in December 2003, Gerrie started having severe pain in her side and found out she had cancer the next month.

“My doctors were not real encouraging,” Gerrie wrote in a note to her family found after her death. “One of my doctors would look real sad and say, ‘Gerrie, it’s bad, it’s real bad.’ I felt like he had just signed by death certificate.”

Despite surgery, chemotherapy, tests and doctors visits that filled the next two years, John and Gerrie made the most of their time. They went to weddings, family reunions, high school reunions and traveled, sightseeing and visiting relatives.

“We did more the last year than some people ever dream about,” John said. “If you know your time is limited, make the most of it. Some people sit and feel sorry for themselves.”

Gerrie was sent home from M.D. Anderson and received hospice care when doctors said they had done all they could on Dec. 12, 2005.

“She said she wanted to die in her own bed, and that’s what she did,” John said. “I reached over one morning and she was cold.”

Dr. Loren C. Ownsby, a gastroenterologist in Victoria, knew Gerrie and was saddened, but not surprised, when he heard she had been diagnosed.

“I see doctors with it,” Ownsby said. “People either don’t think it’s going to happen to them or they think that nothing is wrong if they don’t have symptoms. That’s woefully wrong thinking.”

It’s too late to cure colon cancer by the time someone has symptoms, Ownsby said. He sees or diagnoses colon cancer about once a week, even though colonoscopies catch the disease 95 percent of the time.

“That’s a part of the body that most people don’t want to think about and don’t want a stranger touching,” Ownsby said.

In her note, Gerrie wrote that because of her battle with cancer, she understood something she hadn’t before: “I think God was impressing on me how critical it was to put all my faith and trust in Him for my healing – not the doctors, the hospital, not the medicine. Only He could heal me.”

“We had it made, for older people,” John said. “We couldn’t ask for anything more.”