A Better Probe for Cancer Detection

Science and Technology Highlights from the DOE National Laboratories

November 2, 1998

First, Do No Harm: This physician's motto is put to a tough test when cancer is involved. Although enormous strides have been made in non-invasive diagnostic medicine — such as the magnetic resonance imagers and scanners that can pinpoint disease and other physical malfunction — surgery is often required to confirm the presence and extent of cancerous tumors. Researchers at the Department of Energy's Jefferson Laboratory hopes to tilt the odds in favor of a less physically traumatic procedure; so doing, they may vastly improve the prospects for more effective treatment of cancers of the breast, thyroid and prostate.

Members of the Laboratory's Detector Group, in collaboration with University of West Virginia Medical Center, East Carolina University Medical Center and the Duke University Medical Center, with funding from NSF and DOE and by the Nuclear and High-Energy Physics Research Center at Hampton University, are cooperating on what is known as the Intra-Operative Probe Project, or IPP. The effort is based on technology derived from the sophisticated detector equipment found within the Laboratory's electron accelerator facility.

"Probes exist. We're not the first," says Stan Majewski, head of the Lab's detector group. "But we believe we can improve on existing technology. One way is to improve the imaging."

Other surgical probes tend to simply identify the presence of malignancy. Finding cancer isn't terribly difficult; cancer cells are ravenous for energy to support rapid growth. Typically, radioactive tracers are added to sugar solutions that are injected into patients before testing begins. As the sugar rapidly migrates to the diseased sites, detectors-surgically inserted into the body and maneuvered to suspect areas-are able to generally point out areas of growth.

The Laboratory's probe is substantially more sensitive, with the added advantage of being able to paint a visually detailed picture of tumor sites. "It's like the guy on the beach with a metal detector," says Drew Weisenberger, staff scientist with the Lab's detector group. "A lot of these [detectors] just beep when you find something. Our way you can look and actually see what's there."

The first test of the IPP occurred during an experimental surgical procedure in October at East Carolina University Medical Center on a patient with cancerous melanoma. A whole body scan found suspicious spots in the patient's legs and the surgeon decided to explore the region using the IPP. After testing commercially available conventional methods-that failed to pinpoint the suspicious growth-the test IPP was used and correctly identified a cancerous growth confirmed later to be melanoma. Without the test probe, the cancerous growth would not have been found. Further tests will continued to be conducted to refine the probe.

"In terms technology transfer, I can't imagine better conditions," Majewski contends. "For us as scientists it was an obvious step in nuclear medicine. We decided that we as individuals could make a contribution."

Submitted by DOE's Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility