Singapore- Associate professors Zhang Qichun and Joachim Loo from Nanyang Technological University (NTU) have invented a new way of detecting tumour cells, and administering anti-cancer drugs to those specific cells.
The method involves the use of a biomarker made from a particle ten thousand times smaller than a grain of sand, and lights up when it is activated by near-infrared light emitted by an imaging device.
This happens only when small signalling molecules are released by tumour cells, NTU said on Wednesday.
Near-infrared light, which is invisible to the human eye, is unique as most imaging techniques use ultraviolet light or visible light.
"Near-infrared light can penetrate 3 to 4 cm beyond the skin to deep tissue, much deeper than visible light. It also does not cause any damage to healthy cells, unlike ultraviolet or visible light," said Prof Zhang, a materials expert.
Prof Loo said their new biomarker can also release anti-cancer drugs by creating a layer of coating loaded with drugs on the outside of the nanoparticle. The drugs are released when the biomarker lights up in response to the near-infrared light.
"This is the first time we are able to do bio-imaging, and potentially target the delivery of drugs at the same time, as proven in small animal tests," said Prof Loo, a nanotechnology and bioimaging expert.
He said the breakthrough will open up new doors in the various fields of nanomedicine, bioimaging and cancer therapeutics.
Unlike other new biomarkers used for imaging such as quantum dots, the NTU biomarker has also been shown to be non-toxic, staying in the body for up to two days before it is passed out harmlessly.
Two papers on the discovery has been published in Small, one of the world's top scientific journals for material science and nanotechnology.
The research, which took three years, is jointly funded by NTU, the Ministry of Education and the National Research Foundation, Singapore.