Docs light up cancer cells to kill them

cancer cells, glowing
An example of cancer cells glowing in a new treatment under development.
CBS News

Doctors trying to detect cancer in its earliest stages may soon have the benefit of a new treatment.

CBS News correspondent Cynthia Bowers reports that the treatment forces cancer cells to reveal themselves before it's too late.

To a surgeon operating on cancer, the key is getting it all the first time. But tumors can be tiny and hard to see.

Now, a new technology developed at Purdue University actually makes cancer cells glow, so surgeons can see what they have been missing.

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Some doctors say they can remove 5 times more of the disease with the new technology versus the amount removed without it.

It works by tricking the cancer into showing itself. Researchers add a glowing dye to folic acid, a vitamin cancer cells need to grow.

Doctors then take advantage of the cancer cells' greed for folic acid, which causes them to literally light up.

The procedure hasn't yet been approved in the U.S., but Dutch doctors have performed 20 successful trial surgeries.

"We know (that) the more aggressive you are in the surgical removal of the tumor, the better the outcome of the patient will be," said Gooitzen van Dam, a surgeon with the University of Groningen.

So far, the procedure has only been used on ovarian cancer patients. But the researchers are convinced this is just the beginning.

Folic acid works on about 40 percent of the cancers, but doctors are developing similar targeting molecules for the other 60 percent of the cancers.

Even more promising, that same technology can be used to precisely target and kill cancer cells by deliver extremely power chemotherapy drugs just to cancer cells and leave healthy tissue unharmed. Those drugs are already in FDA trials.