Researchers Study 'Natural' Screen For Cancer

A team of researchers at Simon Fraser University is shedding new light on cancer detection and treatment.

Engineering scientist Andrew Rawicz and two researchers from the University of Kiev are testing the illuminating qualities of an herbal extract called hypericin, which they say is quickly absorbed by cancerous cells. Taken orally or applied topically to the skin, hypericin shows up as a red spot when a patient is "illuminated," with blue filtered light. The substance intensifies on areas where cancer is present, even in its earliest stages.

"Tumors are greedy," says Rawicz. "Cancer cells grow fast and eat more, and tend to accumulate more of the hypericin -- even 10 times more than normal cells -- so once it is absorbed, we can illuminate the patient in a dark room and see these localized red spots. We can say, 'this is where the cancer is.'"

The method is being tested in eastern Europe, with encouraging results, say researchers. Rawicz "imported" the concept with his two colleagues, Ivan Melnik, a professor from the State University in Kiev, and PhD student Sergiy Dets. The research is supported by his own company, Andrew Engineering Inc., an SFU spin-off company.

Researchers have set up a makeshift lab in a 10-by-10-foot darkroom on campus. Costs are cut by using a little imagination -- a modified theatre stage light provides the filtered blue light, for example. A highly sensitive camera capable of reading only the light produced by the hypericin transmits an imageback to a computer screen for closer scrutiny.

"Hypericin gives us a very natural way of screening for various types of cancer," says Rawicz, whose lab produces much of its own hypericin from branches of the herb, St. John's Wort. Rawicz says there are almost no side effects from the use of hypericin, which costs much less than other substances created synthetically to track cancer cells. "Patients who take these other substances can becom

Contact: Marianne Meadahl
Simon Fraser University

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