Typically cancer will spread to other parts of the body when pieces of the original tumor break off and travel through the bloodstream or the lymphoid system, attach themselves to other areas of the body, and start growing again. According to the Economist, a number of research efforts are under way to develop methods to search and destroy these Circulating Tumor Cells (CTCs). One such project, being designed by Vladimir Zharov of the University of Arkansas and Mark Stockman of Georgia State University, in Atlanta, involves microscopic lasers that sound like a 21st Century version of “Fantastic Voyage.”

Attacking tumors from within in the movies

In the 1966 movie, “Fantastic Voyage,” a group of doctors and engineers are shrunk with a nuclear submarine to travel through a patient’s circulatory system to destroy a tumor that is growing inside the brain.

Over 50 years later modern researchers are using advanced nanotechnology to create laser equipped drones that don’t need shrinking with science fiction technology to be injected into a patient’s bloodstream.

How the ‘spasers’ work

The laser drones are called “spasers” which is short for surface-plasmon amplification by stimulated emission of radiation. Each spaser is but 22 nanometers in diameter, consisting of a 10-nanometer gold core surrounded by a silica shell permeated with fluorescent dyes. The outer surface is coated with folic acid.

The treatment works when a host of spasers are injected into the blood stream. Circulating tumor cells tend to be coated with folate-receptor molecules. That means when a spaser comes in contact with the CTCs that stick.

When enough spasers attach themselves to the cancer cells, a laser light is shone through a patient’s skin or through a fiber optic probe to illuminate the florescent dye. Then the laser is turned up, which then is focused on the cancer cells by the spasers, killing them from within.

The process can be automated by having patients wear sensors on their wrists.

When CTCs are detected, a laser is turned up to destroy them. That way the spread of cancer can be suppressed while the primary tumor is dealt with.

What is happening now?

Animal testing of the therapy has already proven to be promising. Human Trials will, therefore, proceed in due course. One tweak to the technology will be to change the visible light laser system with one that emits infrared light.

Infrared will penetrate the body of a patient deeper and this be more effective in wiping out CTCs and helping the patient recover from cancer. If the human trials prove successful, the therapy should be available in a clinical setting in a few years.