Column: New Research — A Pill That Makes Tumors Light Up

By Julia Chiappetta

was fascinated when I came across this research paper in the news that week and thought it worthy to share with you.   

According researchers at the University of Michigan, they are developing a pill that makes tumors light up when exposed to infrared light and have been running studies in mice, where the concept is working.

If this research is validated and comes through the fast track, it could be very exciting for all of us. They specifically made note that men and women being diagnosed with breast cancer, are undergoing unnecessary testing and procedures to determine risk and therefore this could be an amazing advancement to distinguish benign and aggressive tumors.

Mammography, as I have reported previously, is only about 50% accurate. According to a study out of Denmark in 2017, “about one third of breast cancer patients treated with surgery or chemotherapy have tumors that are benign or very slow-growing and may never have become life-threatening. In other women, dense breast tissue hides the presence of lumps and results in deaths from treatable cancer.” On top of those grim facts, mammograms are quite uncomfortable. I have personally chosen ultrasound for all of the above reasons and I venture into New York City, to see Dr. Robert Bard on Park Avenue; a nice walk from Grand Central.  Dr. Bard is quite well-known in radiology circles and one of the front-runners in 3D Doppler Ultrasound.  He has devoted his professional career to seeking out the most highly developed imaging modalities in the U.S. and Europe and is an expert in interpreting scans obtained from sophisticated technologies: Ultrasound (Sonography or Sonograms) including Doppler blood flow with specialties in Breast, Prostate and Skin Cancer.

Back to the new research…Greg Thurber, University of Michigan Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering & Biomedical Engineering, who led the study I read, states “we overspend $4 billion per year on the diagnosis and treatment of cancers that women would never die from. If we go to molecular imaging, we can see which tumors need to be treated and this pill could also catch cancers that would have gone undetected”. His team uses a dye that responds to infrared light to tag a molecule commonly found on tumor cells, in the blood vessels that feed tumors and in inflamed tissue. “By providing specific information on the types of molecules on the surface of the tumor cells, physicians can better distinguish a malignant cancer from a benign tumor.”

He goes on to say: “Compared to visible light, infrared light penetrates the body easily — it can get to all depths of the breast without an X-ray’s tiny risk of disrupting DNA and seeding a new tumor. Using a dye delivered orally rather than directly into a vein also improves the safety of screening, as a few patients in 10,000 can have severe reactions to intravenous dyes. These small risks turn out to be significant when tens of millions of women are screened every year in the U.S. alone.”

But it’s not easy to design a pill that can carry the dye to the tumor.

“To get a molecule absorbed into the bloodstream, it needs to be small and greasy.” Thurber said. “But an imaging agent needs to be larger and water-soluble. So you need exact opposite properties.”

The team attached a molecule that fluoresces when it is struck with infrared light to this drug. Then, they gave the drug to mice that had breast cancer, and they saw the tumors light up.

This is exciting news and my hope is that they continue with this worthy research and that one day soon we see this tiny pill available, to detect and diagnose while saving patients from undergoing stressful and painful surgeries.

Spring has finally sprung and I am enjoying my morning walks at Tod’s Point, where I see many gorgeous, chirping friends, soaring above and perched on tree branches, taking in the sun. Early mornings are so still at “The Point” — so special and it is my time to check in and chat with God to set the tone for my day.  I am also excited that my kitchen counters are exploding with greens and many other colorful vegetables. 

Remember, Green is Good, so drink up in the morning to feed your body superfoods, as you realize the gift of each day filled with amazing experiences to be had and the blessings that abound; begging for us to slow down and enjoy!


Materials provided by University of Michigan. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Journal Reference:

1.  Sumit Bhatnagar, Kirti Dhingra Verma, Yongjun Hu, Eshita Khera, Aaron Priluck, David Smith, Greg M. Thurber. Oral Administration and Detection of a Near-Infrared Molecular Imaging Agent in an Orthotopic Mouse Model for Breast Cancer Screening. Molecular Pharmaceutics, 2018; DOI: 10.1021/acs.molpharmaceut.7b00994

Julia Chiappetta is the author of “Breast Cancer: The Notebook” (Gemini Media, 2006) and is also the owner of Julia Chiappetta Consulting. She lives in Cos Cob. More information and past columns can be found at

Tags: ,