Surgeons at University of Groningen in the Netherlands have successfully performed the first fluorescence-guided surgery on an ovarian cancer patient using a cancer cell ‘homing device’ and an imaging agent developed by researchers at Purdue University in the US.

The surgery was a part of the first phase of a clinical trial to evaluate a new technology to aid surgeons in the removal of malignant tissue from ovarian cancer patients.

The technique involves tagging a fluorescent imaging agent to a modified form of the vitamin folic acid, to help surgeons identify and remove ovarian cancer cells.

In the study, the surgeons reported finding an average of 34 tumour deposits using this technique, compared with an average of seven tumour deposits using visual and tactile observations alone.

The current fluorescent agent uses a green dye to locate tumours, but the short wavelength of green light limits its ability to pass through the body. Therefore, the researchers plan to develop a red fluorescent imaging agent that can be seen through the skin and deep into the body.

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Purdue University Center for Cancer Research member Philip Low said the technique allowed surgeons to spot a tumour 30 times smaller than the smallest they could detect using standard techniques.

University of Groningen professor and surgeon Gooitzen van Dam said the system is easy to use and fits seamlessly in the way surgeons do open and laparoscopic surgery, which is the direction most surgeries are headed in the future.

The clinical trial was funded by Endocyte and the University Medical Center of Groningen.