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Everything Is Illuminated: New Method Aims to Light Up Pieces of the Cancer Puzzle

We’ve learned a lot about cancer, but far from enough. Doctors have gotten better at diagnosing the disease, but they still struggle to pick the right weapon for a patient to fight cancer’s aggressive behavior. “Cancer is very complicated and very different from patient to patient,” says Michael Gerdes, cancer researcher at GE Global Research (GRC) in New York. “We really have not done an adequate job matching patients to therapies. We get some patients but we miss a lot.”

But new breakthroughs in molecular diagnostics are starting to change the picture. Gerdes and his GRC colleagues have developed a new method to look at 60 different tissue markers at a time to help get a better idea of the cancer’s behavior. “With unprecedented views, we hope, will come unprecedented insights that tell us more about how cancer forms, how it progresses, and most importantly, how to defeat it,” Gerdes says.

True Colors: The picture above shows an image of early stage colon cancer using GE’s cancer mapping technology. The technology can display dozens of disease markers in a single tissue sample.

Gerdes and his team start by cutting a translucent slice of tissue some 5 microns thick from a tumor. They stain the sample with organic fluorescent dyes that stick to antibodies, proteins, nucleic acids or other organic material associated with cells and cancer. They put the samples under the fluorescence microscope and snap digital pictures of the stains. Since they can also turn off the colors, they can run several rounds of testing on the same sample.

Other similar methods dissolve the tissue before it is analyzed, but the GRC team keeps the sample intact. This is crucial. “Sometimes a tumor can send out the same signal as a blood vessel,” Gerdes says. “If you grind the sample up, you don’t know where it came from. With our approach we can actually see the cells that are giving us that signal.”

The signals allow the GRC team to create cancer maps. “We can define the boundaries of the cells, give each cell a unique identifier, look at proteins active in different functions of the cell, and monitors different metabolic activities,” Gerdes says.

The GRC researchers have now teamed up with Vanderbilt University to study colon tumors and a new kind of intestinal stem cell discovered by the Vanderbilt team. The cells express a protein that acts as a strong tumor suppressor, but there are different theories about how the cells work. Gerdes hopes to shed new light on the conundrum. “We can look at all the different markers that researchers are pursuing collectively at the same time,” he says. “After we look at the basic biology of what’s happening in the stem cells, we can look at what happens to these cells during tumor formation.”

GRC and Vanderbilt received a $3.75 million grant from the Office of the Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for the project.

In the future, the GRC technology could help pharmaceutical companies design new cancer drugs, test their effectiveness, and help with patient selection. “I really believe that having additional pieces of the puzzle will help us provide a more accurate assessment of patients to determine their therapeutic course,” Gerdes says.

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