Making cancer visible--Dyes in surgical oncology

Surg Oncol. 2016 Mar;25(1):30-6. doi: 10.1016/j.suronc.2015.12.004. Epub 2015 Dec 23.


Dyes share an intricate relationship with oncology. Dyes can cause cancer as chemical carcinogens, but can also be harnessed against cancer when used as diagnostic and therapeutic agents. Histopathology, imaging, and newer molecular diagnostics all rely on dyes, and their use in sentinel lymph node biopsies and intra-operative imaging has helped drive a paradigm shift in cancer surgery towards minimally-invasive and organ sparing approaches with enhanced resection accuracy. As therapeutic agents, the cytotoxicity of specific dyes can be employed in direct chemo-ablation or in photodynamic therapy. The same agent can have dual functionalities in cancer detection and treatment, in a novel field known as theranostics. This is facilitated by newer generation dyes conjugated with tumour-targeting probes such as antibodies, and these bio-conjugate agents can also incorporate nanotechnology or radio-isotopes. Further advances will be closely aligned with our increasing understanding of molecular oncology, and will form a new generation of cancer detection and treatment agents that promote precision medicine for cancer. Dyes and their roles have evolved and been reinvented, but they remain relevant as ever. This review explores the fascinating history of dyes, and their place in the state-of-the-art of oncology.

Keywords: Chemical carcinogenesis; Dyes; Image-guided surgery; Surgical oncology; Theranostics.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Coloring Agents / metabolism*
  • Coloring Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Diagnostic Imaging*
  • Humans
  • Neoplasms / diagnosis*
  • Neoplasms / metabolism
  • Neoplasms / therapy*
  • Prognosis


  • Coloring Agents