Surgeons have tested the use of a fluorescent marker that can help them remove dangerous brain tumour cells from patients more accurately.
The research was carried out on people who had suspected glioblastoma, the disease that killed British politician Dame Tessa Jowell in May, and the most common form of brain cancer.
Treatment usually involves surgery to remove as much of the cancer as possible, but it can be challenging for surgeons to identify all the cancer cells while avoiding healthy brain tissue.
Researchers said using the fluorescent marker helped distinguish the most aggressive cancer cells from other brain tissue and they hope this will ultimately improve patient survival.
They used a compound called 5-aminolevulinic acid or 5-ALA, which the patient drinks. The compound glows pink when a light is shone on it.
Previous research shows that 5-ALA accumulates in fast-growing cancer cells so it can act as a fluorescent marker of high-grade cells.
The study was carried out on 99 patients with suspected high-grade gliomas – a kind of tumour –who were treated at Royal Liverpool hospital, King’s college hospital in London and Addenbrooke’s hospital in Cambridge. They were aged between 23 and 77, with an average age of 59.
During their operations, surgeons reported seeing fluorescence in 85 patients and 81 of these were subsequently confirmed by pathologists to have high-grade disease. One was found to have low-grade disease and three could not be assessed.
In the 14 patients where surgeons did not see any fluorescence, only seven tumours could be subsequently evaluated by pathology but in all these cases, low-grade disease was confirmed.
The study was led by Colin Watts, professor of neurosurgery and chairman of the brain cancer programme at the University of Birmingham. Professor Watts said: “Neurosurgeons need to be able to distinguish tumour tissue from other brain tissue, especially when the tumour contains fast-growing, high-grade cancer cells.
“The advantage of this technique is that it may highlight more quickly high-grade disease within a tumour during neurosurgery.
“What this means is that more of the tumour can be removed more safely and with fewer complications, and that’s better for the patient.”
The trial is being presented at the 2018 National Cancer Research Institute (NCRI) cancer conference in Glasgow.
Dr Kathreena Kurian, associate professor in brain tumour research at the University of Bristol, who took part in the research, said: “Gliomas are difficult to treat, with survival times often measured in months rather than years.
“Once a tumour is removed, it is passed on to a pathologist who examines the cells under a microscope to see if they are ‘high-grade’, fast growing cells, or ‘low-grade’ slower growing cells. And we can plan further treatment, such as radiotherapy or chemotherapy, based on that diagnosis.
“We wanted to see if using a fluorescent marker could help surgeons objectively identify high-grade tumour cells during surgery, allowing them to remove as much cancer as possible while leaving normal brain tissue intact.”