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Kevin Belfield, Ph.D., UCF chemistry professor  and Masanobu Komatsu, Ph.D., an associate professor and cancer researcher at Sanford-Burnham have teamed up to better image cancer tumors. Their research focuses on a non-invasive way to image tumors within deep tissue that one day might complement or replace traditional biopsies and perhaps even be used to treat breast, lung, ovarian, brain, kidney, colon, and endometrial cancers.

Belfield has been developing the technique, which uses near-infrared light to look deep into cells, for years. He’s created a probe that looks for specific proteins that are linked to a variety of diseases. The probe also carries a fluorescent dye that lights up when observed with a special kind of microscope with near-infrared light. The technique is non-invasive and has had promising results, but Belfield wanted to test the technique in more than cells or tissue slices on slides. Komatsu’s research provided the biological system to advance his invention.

Their partnership began in 2008 when Belfield heard Komatsu present at a Sanford-Burnham weekly scientific seminar series. Komatsu is a biologist who studies the regulation of blood vessel growth in tumors at the molecular level. His goal is to modify the abnormal development of vessels so that medicine can reach the tumor while not over-feeding it with nutrients and stimulating growth. The two scientists spoke, realized that their expertise was complementary, and began a partnership that recently resulted in publication of their studies in Bioconjugate Chemistry, a highly cited journal.

Belfield tweaked the chemical probe to specifically bind to folate receptors, which are present in certain kinds of cancerous tumors, particularly cervical cancer. This special mix of non-toxic dyes showed the tumor’s structure, including blood vessels and cells in the deep tissue. Komatsu, who has long been investigating malignant tumors and how they develop, tested the probe in mice.

“When administered, the probes specifically homed to the tumors,” Komatsu said. “This tumor-targeting technology and unique physical properties of the nanoparticles provides high-resolution, 3-D images of the tumors.”

The probes’ ability to define tumor structure is significant as it may help to diagnose a person’s stage of cancer and enhance the effectiveness of treatment. While the probes carry fluorescent dyes now, they could also easily carry therapeutic drugs, Belfield said.

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