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A butterfly’s view of cancer

Another one of God’s designs inspires doctors and scientists

Missael Garcia (left) and Viktor Gruev with the camera they developed University of Illinois/Photo by Brian L. Stauffer

A butterfly’s view of cancer

A team of researchers, intrigued by the way God designed the morpho butterfly’s eyes, recently imitated the creature’s visual system to create a surgical camera that far outperforms any devices designed by human engineers.

The morpho butterfly’s wings are studded with nanostructures that give the insect its brilliant blue color. Its eyes contain similar structures that allow it to simultaneously see both visible and infrared light, the feature the bioengineers imitated in the new surgical instrument.

“Instead of putting together commercially available optics and sensors to build a camera for image-guided surgery, we looked to nature’s visual systems for inspiration,” lead researcher Viktor Gruev said in a statement.

Surgeons sometimes search for cancerous tissue by using fluorescent infrared agents that bind to tumors and give off a signal that special instruments can detect. But the machines can’t fit into most operating rooms, carry a high price tag, and can only identify the infrared signals in a dimly lit room, making it difficult for the surgeon to see. Also, slight temperature changes in the room can affect the optics in the instruments, distorting the images and increasing the risk that the surgeon could miss cancerous areas or unnecessarily remove healthy tissue.

Like the butterfly eye, the new camera contains nanostructures that can simultaneously detect visible and infrared light. It works in bright light, and room temperature does not affect it. The tiny device provides greater sensitivity and accuracy and weighs less than an AA battery. It will also cost about $200, compared to $20,000 for current devices.

In the study, published in Optica, researchers used the camera to detect breast cancer in mice and in the lymph nodes in 11 humans with breast cancer, two of whom harbored malignant lymph nodes not visually apparent.

The study showed that under bright surgical lights, the new camera offers 1,000 times more sensitivity than currently available devices. The researchers are forming a start-up company to commercialize their camera and hope to gain approval for human clinical trials.


Consider the lilies

In two recent studies, secular researchers marveled at the how God designed plants to protect themselves, echoing Jesus’ words, “Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these” (Luke 12:27).

In the first study, published in Nature Communications, researchers looked at why plants can stand out in the scorching sun all day without protection and not sustain the DNA damage that humans would under similar circumstances without clothing or sunblock. The botanists discovered that, like humans, plants do incur damage to their DNA from the sun. But plants have a special, highly precise DNA repair system that cuts short lengths of damaged DNA out of their chromosomes.

“The results show that excision repair in plants is regulated … in order to maximize efficiency, and as a way to direct DNA repair where most acutely needed,” lead research Onur Oztas said in a statement.

In a second plant study, published in Ecology Letters, researchers found that at least 114 plant species around the world, including many orchids, can live dormant underground for as long as 20 years. The extended dormancy allows them to survive through harsh conditions such as threats from herbivores or diseases, poor growing seasons, competition, and fires. “In fire-prone areas, there appears to be an advantage to plants remaining dormant and then sprouting after [a] fire when favorable conditions exist for growth and flowering,” Eric Menges, co-author of the study, said in a statement. —J.B.


Remote control treatment for cancer

Imagine turning on cancer-killing immune cells in the same simple way we turn on our TV—with a click of the remote control.

In a study on mice, published in the journal ACS Synthetic Biology, bioengineers at the Georgia Institute of Technology harvested T-cells, a type of white blood cell produced by the body’s immune system, from mice with malignant tumors and implanted them with a heat-sensitive genetic switch. The scientists also embedded the tumors with tiny gold nanorods the size of only a few atoms.

The researchers used a remote control laser device aimed at the tumor to emit infrared rays at the gold nanorods, causing them to heat slightly. The heat flipped on the switch in the T-cells and activated them.

Currently, bioengineers can harvest a patient’s own T-cells, modify them outside the body to attack cancer, grow them in the lab until there are hundreds of millions of them, and then inject them back into the patient. But once the T-cells invade the malignancy, the tumor often switches off the cells’ cancer fighting ability. The new system will allow doctors to switch the cells back on, as well as to turn them off as needed. If the cells remained on all the time, they could damage healthy tissue as they move through the body.

The bioengineers designed the genetic switch to turn on in a very specific temperature range of 104 to 107.6 degrees Fahrenheit, high enough to prevent the switch from reacting to the majority of high fevers but low enough not to damage healthy tissue. —J.B.

A life-saving combo?

Researchers for the first time have combined an immunotherapy drug with chemotherapy, doubling the survival and remission time for some lung cancer patients, according to a recent study published in The New England Journal of Medicine.

The study included an international mix of 616 patients with non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), which affects up to 85 percent of all lung cancer patients. Lung cancer, the leading cause of cancer death, claims the lives of 1.69 million people worldwide every year, according to the World Health Organization.

NSCLC is so deadly because generally it has already spread before doctors can diagnose it and current chemotherapy drugs provide only short-term survival of a few months, lead researcher Leena Gandhi told CNN.

Immunotherapy uses the body’s own immune system to attack cancer. Doctors usually administer it to patients who already received chemotherapy treatment. This study represents the first time researchers used immunotherapy and chemotherapy simultaneously.

In the study, both patients treated with the combination therapy and those treated with chemotherapy alone showed similar risk of severe side effects, including nausea, anemia, and fatigue. The combination group showed an increase in acute kidney injury.

Cancer patients treated with only chemotherapy live an average of 11 to 12 months past treatment. But in the group treated with the combination therapy, more than 50 percent are still alive now, 21 months past treatment, Jorge Gomez, an oncologist at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital, told CNN. —J.B.

Julie Borg

Julie is a WORLD contributor who covers science and intelligent design. A clinical psychologist and a World Journalism Institute graduate, Julie resides in Dayton, Ohio.

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