Duke doctors testing new cancer fighting tool

DURHAM (WTVD) -- Duke doctors are testing out a new tool that could help in the fight against cancer. It's an injectable agent that acts like a fluorescent dye under a special camera that helps surgeons determine if they've removed all traces of a cancerous tumor.

"In the operating room our goal is to take out 100 percent of a patient's tumor, and the way we try to do that is to take out a margin of normal tissue around the tumor. There are parts of the tumor that are microscopic that we couldn't see even if we wanted to. What the probe does is allow us to see microscopic disease that was maybe left behind," explained Brian Brigman, M.D., Ph.D., chief of orthopedic oncology at Duke.

What's great about this is that being able to visually confirm all of the tumor is gone can prevent additional operations and the potential recurrence of the cancer. And, it can help determine exactly how much radiation therapy a patient might need. The technology was developed through collaboration with scientists at Duke, MIT and a company called Lumicell Inc.

However, before it can actually be applied in hospitals locally and nationwide, it first has to go through rigorous testing. It's already proven successful in removing tumors in mice and dogs, but it's just now being tested in humans. The first round was a safety dose trial which took place at Duke involving 15 patients. The purpose was to inject the blue agent, called LUM015 (pronounced "loom-15") into patients' veins to see if they had any side effects, which none of the participants did. That included Martin Rigsbee, who underwent surgery to remove a soft tissue sarcoma in his bicep in late 2013.

"It was very scary, and it was scary when you had to sign a paper to say, you may lose your arm," Rigsbee shared.

What was especially worrisome for the local business owner was the prospect of losing the one thing he turns to in times of joy, sorrow and stress: playing music, especially the piano and hammer dulcimer.

"To lose that would have been very devastating for me," he admitted.

But, the alternative to avoiding surgery was far worse, so he of course opted to have the tumor removed. And that's when he was approached about taking part in a study being done on LUM015.

"I thought about (how) cancer is a disease that sometimes follows the genes in your family. And I just thought, 'I don't want anybody in my family, especially my grandchildren, to have to face this. So, if I can do anything to help them, then I should do this.' So, I signed up to do the study," he recalled.

His surgery was successful. And, although for the purpose of the study he was only tested for adverse effects to the injectable, doctors did look at the portion of his arm that was removed after the fact.

"They actually could not use it in the operating room, but they carried it to the lab and looked at it with the camera and were able to call back to the doctor and tell him that they had clean margins," he said, meaning they got all of the cancer on the first try. And that was something that gave Rigsbee some much-needed peace of mind. Now, it's been more than three years, and he remains cancer-free, still pursuing his passion for playing music.

"Everybody needs a place to go where their soul can renew. And music to me, even though I don't professionally play for a lot of people, it's where my soul goes to be refreshed," he said.

As for the probe itself, the next phase is an efficacy phase to see how it works. Dr. Brigman estimates it could take a couple years for that study alone, and then maybe ten years before it's commonly used in operating rooms. Still, it's not dampening his enthusiasm.

"It's incredibly exciting for us! This is groundbreaking research in the way we treat sarcomas," Brigman said with a smile.

LUM015 is also being tested for use in breast cancer patients by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital.

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