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La Jolla biotech works to help surgeons remove tumors by making them glow

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San Diego biotech Avelas Biosciences uses a molecule that selectively reacts with cancer cells to make tumors glow. (Avelas Biosciences)

Avelas Biosciences is trying to help surgeons spot and completely remove breast tumors.

La Jolla-based Avelas Biosciences reported Aug. 4 that surgeons are less likely to leave bits of breast cancer behind when operating on patients given a molecule designed to make their tumors glow.

About four of every 10 women in a breast cancer trial who were not given the molecule had some cancer left behind after their operation. But only one of every 10 women whose tumors were labeled with the glowing molecule had remaining cancer after surgery, the company said.

“This could really change how we do breast cancer surgery,” said Dr. Cheryl Olson, a breast cancer surgeon with Scripps MD Anderson Cancer Center who is not affiliated with the company or the trial.

Removing a tumor isn’t quite an exact science. Surgeons often rely on how a tumor looks and feels and their operating experience to know where to cut. To know they’ve cut enough, surgeons remove a small ring of tissue surrounding the tumor, known as the margin, which a pathologist then tests for traces of cancer.

Between 20 percent and 40 percent of breast cancer operations leave some cancer behind. In those cases, a patient must have a second surgery. Some opt to remove their entire breast rather than risk leaving any lurking cancer cells, said Dr. Anne Wallace, director of UC San Diego Health’s Comprehensive Breast Health Center.

That could all be avoided, she said, if surgeons had a surefire way to know during an operation whether they’ve removed enough tissue.

That’s where Avelas’ experimental molecule comes in. The molecule reacts with proteins found on cancer cells but not on healthy cells, causing breast tumors to glow green when flashed with blue light.

Wallace directed an initial clinical trial of the molecule at UCSD, which she says showed that it was safe. The latest results from the trial of about 120 women with breast cancer suggest the molecule could be a useful tool for surgeons.

Avelas Chief Executive Jay Lichter said the company plans to discuss its trial results with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration before the end of this year. Based on that conversation, Avelas may apply for FDA approval soon, with the goal of marketing its molecule by 2023 or earlier.

“We have a really good avenue to meet people and tell them the story about how well this works and how much of a benefit it is for patients,” Lichter said.

The company also is looking into whether its molecule could help surgeons remove tumors for other cancer types, including ovarian, colon and head and neck.

Avelas’ approach is based on the work of Roger Tsien, who unraveled the chemistry behind why some jellyfish glow in the dark. Tsien, a UCSD biochemist who received the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2008, died in 2016. But his discoveries also are lighting the way for another local biotech, Alume Biotechnologies, which is setting nerves aglow to help surgeons avoid cutting them. ◆