Killing cancer.

That is what Samuel Achilefu thinks about and works on every day as chief of the optical radiology lab at Washington University’s School of Medicine in St. Louis, where he is the Michel M. Ter-Pogossian Professor of Radiology and a research member of the Siteman Cancer Center.

He and his team figured out a way to use ultraviolet (UV) light and an illuminating agent to identify cancer cells from normal, healthy cells by using his invention, “cancer goggles.” In the latest prototype, the goggles have slimmed down to become eyeglasses, with transparent data screens in the lenses.

“Now you can see through it. You can see the patient directly, like nothing is there, and we now include the cancer cells inside – it’s in the glasses,” Achilefu said. “The screen does not block your vision at all, but it is projecting the cancer cells in that screen.”

What he is currently investigating is equally amazing.

Achilefu is using that same UV light, which is invisible to the naked eye, and a photosensitive chemotherapy drug and the body’s immune system to target and obliterate cancer cells – breast cancer cells, specifically. Late last year, he became the first recipient of the Breast Cancer Research Program Distinguished Investigator Award, a $4.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense to do just that. The work, known as photoimmunotherapy, finished basic stages and is in animal model testing.

The five-year investigator award allows him to use light to kill breast cancer that have spread to other parts of the body, Achilefu said. Metastasized breast cancer accounts for most U.S. breast cancer deaths.

When certain drugs are exposed to UV light, they break down and the drugs give off toxic radicals that kill the cancer cell from within, he explained.

“We no longer need to give the chemotherapy dose that’s very toxic to people, but you can give a dose that has no effect as chemotherapy, and the only time that it becomes toxic is inside a cancer cell,” said Achilefu.

“The chemo drug is excreted by the liver; the radio-pharmaceutical that we use every day [to find cancer] in the hospital is excreted by the kidneys – so they do not come together. The only place both of them get together would be inside cancer cells.”

Achilefu earned a PhD in molecular physical and materials chemistry at the University of Nancy, France. His postdoctoral training is in oxygen transport mechanisms at Oxford University, UK. The Nigeria native came to St. Louis to work for Mallinckrodt Medical and joined the Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology at Washington University in 2001.

He has a dream of developing an affordable means to cure cancer – using equipment that costs, say, under $10,000 instead of millions so any clinic can afford to use it.

“For me, if many patients can get cured, if they can be healed, it’s priceless,” Achilefu said. “Every other thing is secondary.”

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