Snapshots of Life: Finding a Cube for Cancer

 

Targeted drug delivery systems for cancer treatment

Jenolyn F. Alexander and Biana Godin, Houston Methodist Research Institute; Veronika Kozlovskaya and Eugenia Kharlampieva, University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Creative photographers have long experimented with superimposing images, one over the other, to produce striking visual effects. Now a group of NIH-supported scientists at Houston Methodist Research Institute and their colleagues have done the same thing to highlight their work in the emerging field of cancer nanomedicine, using microscopic materials to deliver cancer treatments with potentially greater precision. In the process, the researchers generated a photographic work of art that was a winner in the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology 2015 Bioart competition.

The gold cubes are man-made polymer microcarriers, just 2 micrometers wide (by comparison, human cells generally range in diameter from 7 to 20 micrometers), designed to transport chemotherapy drugs directly to tumor cells. These experimental cubes, enlarged in the upper left part of the photo with a scanning electron microscope for better viewing, have been superimposed onto a second photograph snapped with a confocal fluorescence microscope. It shows similar cube-shaped microcarriers (yellow) inside cultured breast cancer cells (nucleus is purple, cytoplasm is turquoise).

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Cool Videos: Spying on Cancer Cell Invasion

Spying on Cancer Cell Invation

If you’re a fan of the Mission: Impossible spy thrillers, you might think that secret agent Ethan Hunt has done it all. But here’s a potentially life-saving mission that his force has yet to undertake: spying on cancer cells. Never fear—some scientific sleuths already have!

So, have a look at this bio-action flick recently featured in the American Society for Cell Biology’s 2015 Celldance video series. Without giving too much of the plot away, let me just say that it involves cancer cells escaping from a breast tumor and spreading, or metastasizing, to other parts of the body. Along the way, those dastardly cancer cells take advantage of collagen fibers to make a tight-rope getaway and recruit key immune cells, called macrophages, to serve as double agents to aid and abet their diabolical spread.

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Cancer Metastasis: Trying to Catch the Culprits Earlier

Scaffold

Caption: Scaffold of a cancer cell-attracting implant as seen by scanning electron microscopy.
Credit: Laboratory of Lonnie Shea

For many people diagnosed with cancer localized to the breast, prostate, or another organ, the outlook after treatment is really quite good. Still, most require follow-up testing because there remains a risk of the cancer recurring, particularly in the first five years after a tumor is removed. Catching recurrence at an early, treatable stage can be difficult because even a small number of new or “leftover” tumor cells have the ability to enter the bloodstream or lymphatics and silently spread from the original tumor site and into the lung, brain, liver, and other vital organs—the dangerous process of metastasis. What if there was a way to sound the alarm much earlier—to detect tumor cells just as they are starting to spread?

Reporting in Nature Communications [1], an NIH-funded research team from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, has developed an experimental device that appears to fit the bill. When these tiny, biodegradable scaffolds were implanted in mice with a highly metastatic form of breast cancer, the devices attracted and captured migrating cancer cells, making rapid detection possible via a special imaging system. If the results are reproduced in additional tests in animals and humans, such devices might enable earlier identification—and thereby treatment—of one of the biggest challenges in oncology today: metastatic cancer.

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LabTV: Curious About Cancer Patients’ Quality of Life

Katie MartinezKatie Martinez struggled mightily with math in high school, but now she’s eagerly pursuing a biomedical research career that’s all about crunching numbers. So, what happened to Katie? Cancer is what happened, specifically being diagnosed with breast cancer when she was just a few years out of college.

While growing up in Alexandria, VA, Martinez had little interest in science or math, doing so poorly that she even had to enroll in some remedial classes. So, it wasn’t surprising that she chose to major in history when she went off to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. There, Martinez eventually became intrigued by the many ways in which “built environments”—the places and circumstances in which people live—can affect the health of both individuals and communities. Her interest in these social determinants of health led her to pursue a Master’s degree in Public Health at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancers: Moving Toward More Precise Prevention

Homologous Hope sculpture

Caption: “Homologous Hope” sculpture at University of Pennsylvania depicting the part of the BRCA2 gene involved in DNA repair.
Credit: Dan Burke Photography/Penn Medicine

Inherited mutations in the BRCA1 gene and closely related BRCA2 gene account for about 5 to 10 percent of all breast cancers and 15 percent of ovarian cancers [1]. For any given individual, the likelihood that one of these mutations is responsible goes up significantly in the presence of  a strong family history of developing such cancers at a relatively early age. Recently, actress Angelina Jolie revealed that she’d had her ovaries removed to reduce her risk of ovarian cancer—news that follows her courageous disclosure a couple of years ago that she’d undergone a prophylactic double mastectomy after learning she’d inherited a mutated version of BRCA1.

As life-saving as genetic testing and preventive surgery may be for certain individuals, it remains unclear exactly which women with BRCA1/2 mutations stand to benefit from these drastic measures. For example, it’s been estimated that about 65 percent of women born with a BRCA1 mutation will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of their lives—which means approximately 35 percent will not. How can women in this situation be provided with more precise, individualized guidance on cancer prevention? An international team, led by NIH-funded researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, recently took an important first step towards answering that complex question.

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