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UCSD Lights Up Nerves For Surgeons

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Aired 2/8/11

UCSD researchers have developed a way to make your nerves glow in the dark.

— A new type of glow-in-the-dark liquid could help doctors see nerves better during surgery, which would likely lead to better outcomes.

Researcher Quyen Nguyen, M.D., is also head and neck surgeon at UCSD Medical Center. Nguyen and a team of scientists have developed an amino-acid based fluorescent liquid that travels through the bloodstream and glows when it touches a nerve.

Similar to the color of a kid's glow-stick, this liquid shines green or red in a darkened operating room.

Dr. Nguyen said seeing tiny nerves more clearly would be especially beneficial for surgeons dealing with tumors entangled by nerves, like in prostate surgery.

"During prostate surgery you may have problems with urinary incontinence and erectile dysfunction as a consequence of nerve damage," she said. "So if there's a way for surgeons to accurately and easily see nerves better than they currently do, I think this would be a great advance."

Surgeons rely now on microscopes and visual inspection, but Nguyen said damage to a nerve makes it harder to see and repair.

“Surgeons are trained to find nerves. But I think in challenging situations, for example tumor involvement during a repeat surgery, trauma or infection, finding the nerves and preserving them may be more challenging,” said Nguyen.

The fluorescent nerve liquid is said to be non-toxic and exits the body in about 24 hours through urine.

Right now, it has only been tested in the lab and may be several years away from FDA approval.

Nguyen's study is published in the journal Nature Biotechnology.

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