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Unexpected Discovery May Aid Cancer Therapy

Professor Wei Chen

While searching for a better method to detect radiation, a UT Arlington physicist may have discovered something even more important: an advancement in cancer therapy.

When testing a copper-cysteamine complex created in his lab, Professor Wei Chen noticed unexplained decreases in its luminescence—light-emitting power—over a time-lapse exposure to X-rays. Looking further, he found that the nanoparticles, called Cu-Cy, were losing energy as they emitted singlet oxygen.

Because Dr. Chen has extensive experience in cancer research, he recognized the importance of this discovery, as singlet oxygen is a toxic byproduct used to attack cancer cells in photodynamic therapy. Additional testing revealed that the Cu-Cy nanoparticles, combined with X-ray exposure, significantly slowed tumor growth in lab studies.

“This is the most promising thing we have found in these cancer studies, and we’ve been looking at this for a long time,” Chen says.

Photodynamic therapy harms cancer cells by introducing a photosensitizer into tumor tissue, which produces singlet oxygen when exposed to light. Some studies generate light via visible or near-infrared lasers, while others introduce luminescent nanoparticles into the tumor.

Neither method is ideal for treating deep tissue because the light doesn’t penetrate far enough. But X-ray-inducible Cu-Cy particles do. Further, the Cu-Cy nanoparticles don’t need other photosensitizers, so the treatment is more efficient and cost-effective.

Lun “Kevin” Ma, a research assistant professor on Chen’s team, co-authored a paper on the research in the Journal of Biomedical Nanotechnology with Chen and research associate Xiaoju Zou.

“For cancer, there is still no good solution,” Chen says. “Hopefully this nanoparticle can provide some possibilities.”