Brain tumor survival can be improved by a drink that causes cancer cells to glow pink in surgery, new study suggests

A drink that makes pink cancer cells glow under fluorescent light can help surgeons identify and remove aggressive brain tumors and minimize the damage to healthy brain tissue, an NHS study suggested.

Before undergoing surgery, patients were urged to drink the chemical before surgery, which accumulates in cells of aggressive, fast-growing glioma, the most common group of brain tumors, by researchers led by the University of Birmingham.

Surgeons should remove as much cancer tissue as possible to ensure that they do not grow back into tumors and limit the need for aggressive follow-up chemotherapy or radiotherapy. Fast-growing (high-grade) tumors are especially important to identify because they are most likely to cause a recurrence.

"The advantage of this technique is that during neurosurgery it is faster to emphasize a high degree of disease in a tumor, which means that more of the tumor can be removed more safely and with fewer complications, and that is better for the patient," said Professor Colin Watts, neurosurgeon at the University of Birmingham who led the research.

"These results show that the marker is very good at indicating the presence and location of high-quality cancer cells."

It is thought that the fluid surgeons might also help to consider the next steps during surgery, without having to wait for pathology results to confirm whether tumors are high or low.

The preliminary study only measured whether the chemical – known as 5-aminolevulinic acid (5-ALA) worked and did not test the survival of the patient after the operation.

Aggressive cancer cells glow in pink (above) but not visible on the image below (Colin Watts)

Physicians saw the marker in 85 of 99 patients and later confirmed tests that 81 had high-grade tumors, one had slow-growing tumors and three could not be identified.

No rapidly growing tumors were identified where the marker did not work, although some tumors could not be identified in pathology tests.

The researchers said that survival is in many cases a matter of months and not years – and this treatment has the potential to improve this.

"There is a desperate need for better treatments for brain tumors and to achieve that we need more high-quality research in this area," said Professor Anthony Chalmers, a clinical oncologist at the University of Glasgow who was not involved in the study.

"This technique provides information on site to help surgeons adjust the operation to the location, size and grade of the tumor.

"We know that patients who have nearly complete removal of their tumor have better results, so we are optimistic that these new data will help increase survival times for glioma patients over the long term."

The results have not yet been published, but are presented at the National Cancer Research Institute (NCRI) conference in Glasgow on Sunday.