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A 'glowing tumor' drug helps surgeons detect ovarian cancer

Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa helped study the imaging drug, which the FDA recently approved. It draws attention to hard-to-spot tumors during surgery.

A new drug can help detect ovarian cancer in patients that surgeons might otherwise miss.

The FDA recently approved the use of Cytalux, an imaging dye that providers can inject in patients ahead of surgery. It targets ovarian cancer tissues and glows in fluorescent light to draw attention to hard-to-spot tumors.

The American Cancer Society estimates more than 21,000 people will have received an ovarian cancer diagnosis in 2021 and nearly 14,000 will have died from the disease. Treatment usually includes chemotherapy and surgery to remove as many of the tumors as possible.

According to the FDA, ovarian cancer often causes the body to overproduce a protein in cell membranes called a folate receptor. Cytalux binds to these proteins and surgeons can see the illuminated areas with a special camera in real time during procedures.

Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa participated in clinical trials for the drug and served as the central lab for the study.

Chief of gynecologic oncology Dr. Robert Wenham explained that previously, surgeons had to rely on images taken ahead of the operation as well as their own eyesight and touch to make sure they removed as much cancer as possible. He said Cytalux trials showed that wasn't always enough to do the job.

“At least what we found in this study, is that you could still detect additional lesions in approximately one in three patients,” Wenham said.

Wenham said of those patients, about 70 percent had enough tumor left to threaten their chance of survival. With the help of this new medical technology, he said surgeons were able to remove the excess lesions.

“So that means if you do the math there, 70 percent of about one in three – about one in five patients then end up having clinically significant tumor that would have decreased their expected survival if not for the use of this particular device,” he said.

Now that it has FDA approval, the next step is for the drug and equipment to become commercially available so Moffitt can use it in more patients, Wenham said.

The center’s involvement in studying the drug gives it an advantage, as data showed surgeons performed better with the technology the more they used it, he said.

“So we're looking forward to offering this because we already have the experience with it and we think that we're going to be able to help more patients,” Wenham said.

Wenham said patients receiving the treatment should expect their operation experience to take a little longer, as injection of the drug requires an hour-long infusion one hour ahead of surgery. The procedure itself could take about 20 minutes longer, he said, as surgeons use the camera to look for lesions.

He said some patients experienced side effects from the injection such as itching or nausea but the vast majority did not have serious issues.

Copyright 2021 WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7

Stephanie Colombini joined WUSF Public Media in December 2016 as Producer of Florida Matters, WUSF’s public affairs show. She’s also a reporter for WUSF’s Health News Florida project.