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Drug 5-ALA illuminates cancer cells in brain so surgeons can locate and remove them more easily

Mayfield Brain & Spine using advanced procedure
Posted at 8:11 PM, Jan 18, 2019

CINCINNATI — "Fantastic Voyage" was a 1966 science fiction movie about a submarine crew who shrunk to microscopic size and traveled into the body of an injured scientist to repair damage to his brain.

More than 50 years later, Dr. Christopher McPherson of Mayfield Brain & Spine is doing something almost equally fantastic – only real.

He's using a recently approved drug technology called 5-ALA that lights up tumor cells in the brain, making them visible under a special microscope. The procedure is new to the Tri-State.

Now, when McPherson operates to remove the cancer, he can see it more easily. It's especially helpful when trying to get at individual, malignant cells that aren't part of a primary tumor.

“To see it in an area where I would have never thought there was tumor in that area, based on image guidance, was pretty amazing,” McPherson said. “It was definitely an a-ha moment.”

Margaret Mooney, who was diagnosed with lung cancer, is grateful for the advanced procedure. She took 5-ALA before her surgery, revealing the cancerous cells that had traveled into her brain and allowing their removal.

“I'm doing good,” Margaret said Friday.

"I'm grateful for Dr. McPherson," her husband added. "He did a wonderful job."

Mooney will be following up with other treatments. McPherson said the drug that helped her marks a significant step forward in identifying and treating cancer.

“Before we could only see the tip of the iceberg, the part that's very abnormal,” McPherson said. "And we know the more extensive the resection in the beginning, the more likely for a long-term survival."