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This Time It’s Personal: New High-Tech Weapons Take Close Aim at Cancer

Hardly a week goes by without news of cancer breakthroughs or promising new treatments. In December, for example, scientists at the Karolinska Institutet and Science for Life Laboratory in Stockholm found gene-coding regions possibly linked to cancer in parts of the DNA that were long considered gibberish.

The team probed the vast dark stretches of the genome, called junk DNA, with a special protein screening gel developed by GE Healthcare Life Sciences. The gel allowed researchers to create detailed maps of areas where genes were being expressed. “It’s like having a new high-resolution digital camera,” says Lotta Ljungqvist, head of research and development for bioprocess at the GE business. “We can use this technology to detect the function on the junk DNA, observe the difference between healthy and diseased samples, and eventually find a way to treat diseases.”

Janne Lehtiö, an associate professor at the Karolinska institute and leader of the team, said that the research felt “like participating in a Jules Verne adventure inside the genome.”

Lehtiö’s project is just one of many cancer efforts involving GE and its technology. GE is a veteran of the fight against cancer and supports the annual World Cancer Day held every February 4.

For many GE employees, that fight is personal. “I lost my father to leukemia, one of my closest friends to colon cancer, and my aunt to breast cancer,” says Sue Siegel, CEO of GE Ventures and healthymagination. “I have experienced the ferociousness and finality of cancer. GE made a purposeful commitment to help accelerate cancer innovation, expand access, reduce cost and help improve the quality of care for patients around the world by 2020. We started with breast cancer and we are seeing improved outcomes.”

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Top image shows HeLa cells stained for transfected (red) and endogenous (green) DNA damage response proteins, and DNA (blue). Above, cancer researchers stained metastatic breast cancer cells for actin (green), tubulin (red) and DNA (blue) to create this image. The images were created for cancer research. All three images in this post are finalists in GE Healthcare’s cell imaging competition.

GE’s healthymagination challenge, for example, launched an open innovation quest looking for the best new ideas in breast cancer detection and treatment. Oncologist Jennifer Pietenpol and her team at the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center in Nashville, Tenn., received $100,000 from GE for their research seeking ways to destroy a highly aggressive and chemotherapy-resistant type of the disease called triple-negative breast cancer. “Our task is to understand how these tumor cells grow, find their Achilles’ heel, and how we can hit it,” Pietenpol says. “This is where we are going, using much more precision therapy where no two tumors are going to be alike.”

Pietenpol’s team identified six unique targets to fight the cancer and started designing clinical trials. “We have a lot of work to do,” she says. “We’ve just begun to uncover these lower hanging fruits.”

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A microscopic view of cancer cells, generated by scientists researching new cancer treatments with the help of GE Healthcare’s IN Cell Analyzer system.

Working along similar lines, Vanderbilt University has also teamed up with scientists from GE Global Research (GRC) to better understand colon cancer. Cancer researcher Michael Gerdes and his colleagues developed a new method to study 60 different tumor markers at the same time and obtain a better idea of cancer’s behavior. “With unprecedented views, we hope, will come unprecedented insights that will tell us more about how cancer forms, how it progresses, and most importantly, how to defeat it,” Gerdes says.

In the future, the GE technology could help pharmaceutical companies design new cancer drugs, test their effectiveness, and select patients for treatments. “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.

GE will be holding a one-hour Tweetchat today to discuss cancer, the ways to reduce its stigma, and to debunk the myths about the disease. You can join the #TacklingCancer Tweetchat at #WorldCancerDay.

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