Fluorescence-guided surgery using tumor-targeted contrast agents has been developed to improve the completeness of oncologic resections. Quenched activity–based probes that fluoresce after covalently binding to tumor-specific enzymes have been proposed to improve specificity, but none have been tested in humans. Here, we report the successful clinical translation of a cathepsin activity–based probe (VGT-309) for fluorescence-guided surgery.

Experimental Design:

We optimized the specificity, dosing, and timing of VGT-309 in preclinical models of lung cancer. To evaluate clinical feasibility, we conducted a canine study of VGT-309 during pulmonary tumor resection. We then conducted a randomized, double-blind, dose-escalation study in healthy human volunteers receiving VGT-309 to evaluate safety. Finally, we tested VGT-309 in humans undergoing lung cancer surgery.


In preclinical models, we found highly specific tumor cell labeling that was blocked by a broad spectrum cathepsin inhibitor. When evaluating VGT-309 for guidance during resection of canine tumors, we found that the probe selectively labeled tumors and demonstrated high tumor-to-background ratio (TBR; range: 2.15–3.71). In the Phase I human study, we found that VGT-309 was safe at all doses studied. In the ongoing Phase II trial, we report two cases in which VGT-309 localized visually occult, non-palpable tumors (TBRs = 2.83 and 7.18) in real time to illustrate its successful clinical translation and potential to improve surgical management.


This first-in-human study demonstrates the safety and feasibility of VGT-309 to label human pulmonary tumors during resection. These results may be generalizable to other cancers due to cathepsin overexpression in many solid tumors.

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