Finding and destroying tumors with microscopic ‘spasers’


[Research by] Vladimir Zharov of the University of Arkansas and Mark Stockman of Georgia State University, in Atlanta involves injecting cancer patients with hordes of tiny lasers that will seek out and destroy so-called circulating tumour cells (CTCs). These are cells that have broken off a primary tumour and which, if left unchecked, might lodge in various parts of the body and turn into secondary cancers, a process called metastasis. The minuscule lasers which the pair use, of a type developed a few years ago by Dr Stockman, are called “spasers”.

The device’s other ingredient, the folic acid, is its guidance system. Unlike most healthy cells, cancer cells are usually covered with folate-receptor molecules. If a spaser comes into contact with such a cell, it therefore tends to stick.

Spasers so absorbed can be employed for two purposes: diagnosis and destruction. Shining low-level laser light into a patient, either through his skin or (to reach deeper inside) through a fibre-optic probe, causes cancerous cells containing spasers to shine brightly. That reveals their locations. Applying more powerful laser pulses (though still at a level harmless to humans) transforms the spasers into killers.

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