Hidden Signals Could Improve Cancer Scans


Nanoparticles are becoming more and more ubiquitous in medicine. Because scientists can design nanoparticles with different structures and properties for different tasks in the body, researchers have incorporated them into applications from drug and gene delivery to biomedical imaging.

Now, researchers at Hunter College have discovered a property of nanoparticles that could lead to improvements in imaging methods such as PET scans. Their results appear in Nature Nanotechnology.

When used for imaging, nanoparticles act as carriers for radioactive atoms, which send out the signals that “light up” on scan results. The investigators found that the nanoparticles, rather than acting only as passive carriers, are sending out signals, too.

The new study explains that when hit with radiation from a piggybacking atom, nanoparticles give off either visible light or X-rays. These signals could add an extra layer of information to current methods of medical scans.

“Medical imaging is all about selectivity, sensitivity, and spatial resolution,” said Professor Charles Drain (Hunter College, The Graduate Center, CUNY), one of the study’s authors. These results could “allow for faster whole body scans and precise spatial definition of disease, such as tumors, during surgery, using luminescence of visible light.”

The investigators demonstrated their new methods of detection in mice with cancer, but tweaking the nanoparticles “will enable detection and delineation of other diseases that cause malformation of tissues,” Drain said.

Co-authors include Hunter College Ph.D. student Qize Zhang, and Drain lab alumnus Travis Shaffer, now of Stanford University. The CUNY team collaborated with researchers from Weill Cornell Graduate School and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

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Charles Michael Drain (Professor, Supramolecular Photonics) | Profile 1 | Profile 2 | Profile 3