Skip to main content

Like Google Maps For Illness: This Researcher is Using New Tricks to Crack The Secrets Of Cancer

November 25, 2015
When Fiona Ginty was an 11-year-old schoolgirl entering Salerno Secondary School in Salthill, Galway, Ireland, she had to make a tough choice. Many other girls in her class were studying things like cooking and budgeting in home economics. But Ginty’s father encouraged her to take a different road. “My father said, ‘You are doing science!’” Ginty recalls. She happily took his advice.
More than three decades later, the world is poised to reap the benefits of Ginty’s choice. As a principal scientist at GE Global Research, Ginty has been working to advance our understanding of everything from cancer to Alzheimer’s disease.

Ginty’s work will be featured in Sunday's episode of the six-part documentary series “Breakthrough.” GE and National Geographic Channel jointly developed the series, which highlights scientific discovery and looks at innovations on the verge of breaking out. The series was produced by Hollywood duo Brian Grazer and Ron Howard.

The episode, called The Age of Aging, was directed by Howard and looks at scientific advances that could help people live longer, healthier lives. It will air on National Geographic Channel at 9pm ET.


With the number of Americans over 65 set to double between now and 2050 (and the number worldwide set to almost triple), health in old age is a pressing topic Ginty deals with every day. “We are working to gain new insights into cell function and behavior in cancer and other diseases, which will hopefully lead to therapies in the long run,” Ginty says.


Ginty and her team GE Global Research in Niskayuna, N.Y., are using the latest disease mapping tools that allow them to get a more complete picture of cancer by visualizing culpable proteins in their cells. They’ve already processed thousands of tumor samples to better understand their behavior. The work could give pharmaceutical companies and biomedical researchers a better understanding of tumors so they can develop new drugs and therapies.

“I liken the process to Google Maps,” Ginty says. “At the 30,000-foot view, you can tell there is a town. But as you zoom in, you can start to see streets, rivers, stores and other finer details. Our technology gives similar information about tumors, such as how the tumor is organized, where the blood supply is and what the pockets of cells are doing.”

Previously, scientists were able to visualize either only a few proteins at a time in a tissue slice or a chaotic jumble of thousands of them. In both instances the process was slow and cumbersome. But the technology in Ginty’s lab allows her to stain, image, wash and re-stain the same tissue sample. As a result, she can get a look at more than 60 proteins undisturbed on a single slice of tissue, and gather tremendous detail on how diseased cells communicate and grow.

ColonCancerImageResearchers stained this colon cancer tissue sample to highlight a biomarker linked to poor patient outcome. Image credit: GE Global Research

She says that the process that involved thousands of proteins, for example, was like making a complex smoothie in a blender then trying to identify the fruit that went inside. The new method “allows us to look closely at the contents of the fruit bowl of fruit before it goes into the mixer and see whether there is any spoiled fruit and where,” she says. “With our approach, you can see which types of immune cells are located around the tumor. That’s important information as researchers try to understand how the immune system responds to cancer and develop new immunotherapies.”

Scientists are using the technology to study a variety of cancers including colon, prostate, lung, breast, brain and gastric cancer. They can also use it to investigate Alzheimer’s and traumatic brain injury.

Says Ginty: “When I was a young child, I wanted to be an inventor, but thought that everything had already been invented. As an adult scientist, I came to see how much work there is left to do.”