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Using Tattoo Ink and Food Dyes to Find Cancer

Researchers on Cristina Zavaleta’s team from USC Viterbi Department of Biomedical Engineering recently developed new ways for cancer imaging, using common dyes such as tattoo ink and food dyes. These dyes, called imaging agents, work by attaching to nanoparticles, a type of nanomaterial that can enter cancer cells. These nanoparticles will then move across blood vessels and illuminate cancer cells they encounter, which can help people distinguish between cancer cells and normal adjacent cells. The idea of using dyes to illuminate the cancers was inspired by Zavaleta’s trip to a tattoo artist in nearby San Francisco. Since tattoo ink can create unique spectral fingerprints on the nanoparticles, which enables the nanoparticles to glow with different colors, the researchers consider them good candidates for cancer imaging.

One difficulty associated with nanoparticle cancer imaging, though, is that the nanoparticles may have prolonged retention in some organs like the liver and spleen, and only a limited number of them have been approved by the FDA. The limited diversity of biodegradable nanoparticles makes it hard to distinguish between cells, especially when different types of cancer cells, normal cells, and tissues are in the same place. The research team overcame this difficulty by using common food dyes in colorful candies including Skittles and M&Ms, which are biodegradable. The team also developed a special type of nanoparticle that can carry and encapsulate large amounts of dyes. The large load of dyes enables the nanoparticles to glow more intensely and to contrast the cancer cells better from normal cells. By carrying dyes of different colors, the nanoparticles can help distinguish a larger diversity of cells and provide more specificity in cancer cell locations. This invention is very important, as it helps detect cancer cells at the early stages of cancer development, which impacts over 38% of Americans who suffer from cancer.

Work cited:

Harrison, Greta. “Using Tattoo Ink to Find Cancer.” ScienceDaily, ScienceDaily, 2 Sept. 2020,

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