The Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, US, has secured $9m in funding from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to advance the research and use of its imaging technology for illuminating tumour cells.

The five-year fund will be used by researchers from the university, the Center for Precision Surgery in the Abramson Cancer Center and other institutions to study and improve the intraoperative molecular imaging (IMI) technology for non-small-cell lung cancers (NSCLC).

NSCLCs are the most common form of lung cancer and are diagnosed in more than 200,000 people a year in the US.

IMI technology is based on fluorescent beacon molecules, which target and bind to tumour cells themselves, making them glow and allowing doctors to more easily distinguish cancer from healthy tissue.

The fluorescent beacon molecules used in IMI technology are infused into the patient before surgery.

They bind to cell-surface receptors, for example, folate receptors, that are abundant on cancer cells.

The beacons emit light and enable the detection of tumour cells up to roughly two centimetres below the tissue surface, depending on the type of tissue.

The researchers aim to develop improved imaging equipment as well as beacon molecules for NSCLC, which will be tested in clinical trials.

Center for Precision Surgery in the Abramson Cancer Center director Dr Sunil Singhal said: “This funding gives us a tremendous opportunity to further evaluate this important technology and with the goal being to improve outcomes for patients.

“We aim to develop this technology even further and to study it in additional clinical trials to help improve surgical identification and removal of tumours.”

Purdue University chemistry and biochemistry professor Philip Low will help to develop the new beacon molecules.

The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign bioengineering professor Shuming Nie and electrical and computer engineering professor Viktor Gruev will develop sensitive, near-infrared cameras.

Additionally, Johnson & Johnson’s Bruce Rosengard will help develop miniaturised chips for bronchoscopic detection of the light emitted from the tumour-homing beacons.

The clinical trials of the new technology will be conducted at Penn Medicine.