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Wilfrid Laurier researcher studying the role of light in early cancer detection

A researcher at Wilfrid Laurier University has been awarded $100,000 to advance her study into the correlation between cancerous tissues and light.

Nirosha Murugan was one of ten researchers from around the world who was awarded the money from the 2023 Optica Foundation Challenge.

The goal of Murugan’s research is to eventually create an imaging platform that could detect cancer earlier, and to identify cognitive impairments from chemotherapy earlier.

“The very first finding I found in my graduate degree is that cells are very receptive to external light, magnetic fields and electricity,” Murugan said.

“It kind of moved toward cancer, and we noticed that cancer cells are highly receptive to these kinds of signals – more than healthier tissue – and we can actually use them as new therapeutics.”

The project could lead to a non-invasive detection platform.

“With light being able to penetrate and be emitted from tissue, we could have sensors outside of the body that can tell us what’s happening inside non-invasively,” Murugan said.

Another part of the research project looks at the cognitive affect chemotherapy has on some patients, known as “chemo brain.”

“Unfortunately, even though chemotherapy is a lifesaving drug, it actually has a lot of impact on brain health and it can cause cognitive decline,” Murugan said.

“There’s not a lot of understanding as to why some people are affected cognitively by chemotherapy and some people are not. With exploring how the brain changes in a very early way with these light signals, we might be able to get a good understanding.”

From left: Nirosha Murugan, Victoria Hossack and another member of the reasearch team in the lab. (Stefanie Davis/CTV Kitchener)

From there, the researchers hope to find strategies to catch “chemo brain” earlier.

Victoria Hossack, a post-doctoral fellow working in Murugan’s lab, explained that they look for changes in brain signals that occur before the onset symptoms.

“In the context of this study, we want to see who’s going to develop the cognitive changes of chemotherapy before it starts happening so we can have an earlier intervention,” she said.

In addition to being invasive, current cancer diagnostics can be expensive.

“My dream is that this is accessible to everyone, regardless of where they’re from,” she said.

Hossack said projects like this are the reason she committed to her line of study.

“I can use the knowledge and the skills that I developed in my graduate studies and now apply them to research that will have a huge impact on a lot of people,” she said.

Murugan said the Optica funding will help the team leverage their technology for about a year, but she hopes to find funding after that.

“Optica as a foundation has really opened up a lot of my doors in understanding how the physical world blends with the biological world. This grant allows us to explore that a lot more deeply and with technology that we otherwise wouldn’t have been able to get,” Murugan explained.

“It gives us the room to explore light-based biomarkers, specifically for biology.” Top Stories

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