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Pill Devised to Replace Mammograms for Cancer Detection

Researchers say it makes tumors light up when exposed to infrared light

Woman's hand holding pill

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This pill contains a fluorescent chemical designed to detect cancers.

University of Michigan researchers are developing a pill that makes breast cancer tumors light up when exposed to infrared light, potentially providing a better alternative to mammograms. In a study published in the journal Molecular Pharmaceutics, they reported that the technology works successfully in mice. 

The pill eventually might provide an alternative to a mammogram, an uncomfortable procedure whose reliability has been questioned. A 2017 Danish study found that as many as one-third of abnormalities detected by mammograms may never present a threat to women’s health.

“The method can help detect tumors that mammography may miss,” Greg Thurber, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Michigan, said in an email. “This is particularly important for women with dense breast tissue who are at a higher risk of breast cancer, but their tumors are more challenging to see in a mammogram. Second, the method may help avoid unnecessary follow-up procedures such as a needle biopsy or treatment for women who won’t benefit from these interventions and may never have any problems or die from the tumor even if left untreated.”

When swallowed, the pill releases a fluorescent chemical designed to bind specifically to receptors on cancer cells, but not to healthy tissue. A tumor then can be illuminated with infrared light.

Thurber said the researchers chose chemicals for the pill that have been demonstrated to be safe for humans, but the combination still must pass additional toxicity tests before clinical trials can be performed. If all goes well, Thurber said, the pill may be available for clinical use within five years.

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