How improved photoacoustic scans could enhance cancer treatments

31 July 2012

Improvements could soon be made to photoacoustic imaging techniques, in a development which could pave the way for cancers to be better detected in the years to come.

Researchers based at the University of Missouri have carried out a breakthrough study that has highlighted that photoacoustic scans are able to find some forms of melanoma even when there are only a few cancerous cells inhabiting a person's body.

This particular finding will be eye-catching in the medical field, seeing as though melanoma skin cancer is a serious health problem across the globe.

For instance, the American Cancer Society states in its own research that one person dies every hour from the disease in the US alone. Add to this the fact that Cancer Research UK finds malignant melanoma of the skin to be the fifth most common cancer in Britain, and it is clear that possible melanoma cancer treatments are not to be taken lightly.

However, the research by the University of Missouri scientists went on to reveal that the photoacoustic imaging technique was limited when it came to identifying the presence of other types of cancer.

But this could be about to change. This is because the same group of researchers has suggested that attaching markers known as enhancers to cancer cells could enhance the ability of photoacoustic scans.

In effect, the technique may be able to detect other forms of cancer just as early as it does melanoma skin cancer, thus possibly saving many lives in the process.

Luis Polo-Parada, assistant professor of pharmacology and physiology and resident investigator at the Dalton Cardiovascular Research Center at the University of Missouri, hoped to delve further into the importance of his team's findings.

"Now, a cancerous growth is undetectable until it reaches approximately one cubic centimetre in size. Photoacoustics could potentially find cancerous growths of only a few cells," he pointed out.

In order for this to become a reality, Mr Polo-Parada queried the possibility of such photoacoustic enhancers as gold, carbon nanotubes and dyed nanoparticles when diagnosing for various forms of cancer.

The professor explained: "Some melanoma can be found by photoacoustics because the cells contain large quantities of melanin, a dark pigment."

"Other cancers don't have that much pigmentation; hence, they don't stand out as much in photoacoustic scans. This is where enhancers may be able to help by labelling cancer cells and making them stand-out in a scan."

So what exactly is photoacoustic imaging?

The origins of photoacoustic imaging dates all the way back to the 1880s and the experiments carried out by Alexander Graham Bell.

One of the famous inventor's ideas was the thought that if light passed through objects, rather than bouncing off them as was then only thought possible, then people may be able to communicate to one another via what Alexander Graham Bell referred to as "photophones".

Fast forward a century later to the 1980s and the inventor's musings were put to test, but this time with the hope of providing more accurate diagnoses for any medical ailment.

Photoacoustic imaging had a helping hand during this time though, with the invention of laser technology allowing for patients to be subjected to non-ionizing types of laser pulses. This strategy meant that there was no harm to be come from people who came into contact with such pulses.

While the University of Mossouri's new possibility about photoacoustic scans holds promise for even more advancements where this technique is concerned, Mr Polo-Parada stressed that the tests are too early to truly understand the research's benefits on the public.

However, the professor did muse: "Eventually, a photoacoustic scan could become a routine part of a medical exam."

Posted by Jeanette Royston

Polo-Parada, Luis et al. "An experimental and theoretical approach to the study of the photoacoustic signal produced by cancer cells". AIP Advances. Monday, July 30th 2012.

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