This “Pink Drink” helps surgeons identify cancerous tumours

Despite our advancements in cancer-treating technologies, it’s always been tricky to spot cancerous tumours of the brain and spine during surgery. Surgeons, typically, have to use the naked eye to distinguish cancerous tissue from healthy tissue. But now, thanks to a new clinical trial of the chemical 5-ALA, they’ve just been given a serious hand when treating patients diagnosed with glioma brain cancer.

This “Pink Drink” helps surgeons identify cancerous tumours

The chemical name 5-ALA probably means very little to you, but it’s an important little addition in the fight against cancer. This chemical, when administered to patients as a drink prior to surgery, highlights dangerous glioma tumours under UV light, revolutionising the treatment of this tricky cancerous tumor.

In a recent trial, 5-ALA – more colloquially known as the “Pink Drink” – was given to 99 patients suspected of having high-grade gliomas prior to surgery. The fluorescent pink of 5-ALA showed up on 85 patients, 81 of whom were confirmed to have high-grade gliomas, one had a low-grade glioma and the remaining three could not be assessed.

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Of the 14 who did not show any effects from the pink drink, seven were confirmed to have low-grade gliomas, and the remaining seven could not be assessed.

The results of the trial showed that 5-ALA seems to work on more aggressive glioma tumours. Researchers believe this is because these cancerous cells lack the enzyme needed to break it down. In other words, the healthy parts of the body work as they should do and dissipate the Pink Drink’s effects, whereas the cancerous cells do not. Because of this, it paints these cancerous cells and highlights them out to surgeons when under a UV light. The more developed the tumour, the less common the enzyme which breaks down 5-ALA is, which is why the Pink Drink’s success is focused so greatly on high-grade glioma patients.   

According to The Brain Tumour Charity 5-ALA has led to the successful removal of glioma tumours in 70.5% of cases. Without the pink drink there’s only a 30% success rate.  

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The trouble with high-grade gliomas is that they’re diffuse, meaning they have “threadlike tendrils extending into surrounding areas of the brain,” explains The Brain Tumour Charity. Ultimately this means the surgical removal of the entirety of a tumour is close to impossible. The elements of the tumour which can’t be removed via surgery are left to be treated by aggressive chemotherapy and radiography.

However, because of 5-ALA, surgeons can now remove more of the tumour with greater accuracy. Not only does this mean less follow-up chemotherapy, it also means a less intense treatment process and a better quality of life for patients.

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