Posted on by Lawrence Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D.
This year, too many Americans will go to the doctor for tissue biopsies to find out if they have cancer. Highly trained pathologists will examine the biopsies under a microscope for unusual cells that show the telltale physical features of a suspected cancer. As informative as the pathology will be for considering the road ahead, it would be even more helpful if pathologists had the tools to look widely inside cells for the actual molecules giving rise to the tumor.
Working this “molecular information” into the pathology report would bring greater diagnostic precision, drilling down to the actual biology driving the growth of the tumor. It also would help doctors to match the right treatments to a patient’s tumor and not waste time on drugs that will be ineffective.
That’s why researchers have been busy building the needed tools and also mapping out molecular atlases of common cancers. These atlases, really a series of 3D spatial maps detailing various biological features within the tumor, keep getting better all the time. That includes the comprehensive atlas of colorectal cancer just published in the journal Cell .
This colorectal atlas comes from an NIH-supported team led by Sandro Santagata, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, and Peter Sorger, Harvard Medical School, Cambridge, MA, in collaboration with investigators at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN. The colorectal atlas joins their previously published high-definition map of melanoma , and both are part of the Human Tumor Atlas Network that’s supported by NIH’s National Cancer Institute.
What’s so interesting with the colorectal atlas is the team combined traditional pathology with a sophisticated technique for imaging single cells, enabling them to capture their fine molecular details in an unprecedented way.
They did it using a cutting-edge technique known as cyclic immunofluorescence, or CyCIF. In CyCIF, researchers use many rounds of highly detailed molecular imaging on each tissue sample to generate a rich collection of molecular-level data, cell by cell. Altogether, the researchers captured this fine-scale visual information for nearly 100 million cancer cells isolated from tumor samples representing 93 individuals diagnosed with colorectal cancer.
With this single-cell information in hand, they next created detailed 2D maps covering the length and breadth of large portions of the colorectal cancers under study. Finally, with the aid of first author Jia-Ren Lin, also at Harvard Medical School, and colleagues they stitched together their 2D maps to produce detailed 3D reconstructions showing the length, breadth, and height of the tumors.
This more detailed view of colorectal cancer has allowed the team to explore differences between normal and tumor tissues, as well as variations within an individual tumor. In fact, they’ve uncovered physical features that had never been discovered.
For instance, an individual tumor has regions populated with malignant cells, while other areas look less affected by the cancer. In between are transitional areas that correspond to molecular gradients of information. With this high-resolution map as their guide, researchers can now study what this all might mean for the diagnosis, treatment, and prognosis of colorectal cancer.
The atlas also shows that the presence of immune cells varies dramatically within a single tumor. That’s an important discovery because of its potential implications for immunotherapies, in which treatments aim to unleash the immune system in the fight against cancer.
The maps also provide new insights into tumor structure. For example, scientists had previously identified what they thought were 2D pools of a mucus-like substance called mucin with clusters of cancer cells suspended inside. However, the new 3D reconstruction make clear that these aren’t simple mucin pools. Rather, they are cross sections of larger intricate caverns of mucin interconnected by channels, into which cancer cells make finger-like projections.
The good news is the researchers already are helping to bring these methods into the cancer clinic. They also hope to train other scientists to build their own cancer atlases and grow the collection even more.
In the meantime, the team will refine its 3D tumor reconstructions by integrating new imaging technologies and even more data into their maps. It also will map many more colorectal cancer samples to capture the diversity of their basic biology. Also of note, having created atlases for melanoma and colorectal cancer, the team has plans to tackle breast and brain cancers next.
Let me close by saying, if you’re between the ages of 45 and 75, don’t forget to stay up to date on your colorectal cancer screenings. These tests are very good, and they could save your life.
 Multiplexed 3D atlas of state transitions and immune interaction in colorectal cancer. Lin JR, Wang S, Coy S, Chen YA, Yapp C, Tyler M, Nariya MK, Heiser CN, Lau KS, Santagata S, Sorger PK. Cell. 2023 Jan 19;186(2):363-381.e19.
 The spatial landscape of progression and immunoediting in primary melanoma at single-cell resolution. Nirmal AJ, Maliga Z, Vallius T, Quattrochi B, Chen AA, Jacobson CA, Pelletier RJ, Yapp C, Arias-Camison R, Chen YA, Lian CG, Murphy GF, Santagata S, Sorger PK. Cancer Discov. 2022 Jun 2;12(6):1518-1541.
Colorectal Cancer (National Cancer Institute/NIH)
CyCIF-Cyclic Immunofluorescence (Harvard Medical School, Cambridge, MA)
Sandro Santagata (Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston)
Peter Sorger (Harvard Medical School)
Jia-Ren Lin (Harvard Medical School)
NIH Support: National Cancer Institute; National Institute of General Medical Sciences; National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
Last year, nearly 175,000 American men were diagnosed with prostate cancer . Most got the bad news after a blood test or physical exam raised concerns that warranted a biopsy of the prostate, a walnut-sized gland just below the bladder.
Traditional biopsies sample tissue from 12 systematically placed points within the prostate that are blind to tumor locations. Such procedures have helped to save many lives, but are prone to missing or misclassifying prostate cancers, which has led doctors both to over and under treat their patients.
Now, there may be a better approach. In a study of more than 2,000 men, NIH researchers and their colleagues recently found that combining the 12-point biopsy with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)-targeted biopsy during the same session more accurately diagnoses prostate cancer than either technique alone .
The findings address a long-standing challenge in prostate cancer diagnostics: performing a thorough prostate biopsy to allow a pathologist to characterize as accurately as possible the behavior of a tumor. Some prostate tumors are small, slow growing, and can be monitored closely without treatment. Other tumors are aggressive and can grow rapidly, requiring immediate intervention with hormonal therapy, radiation, or surgery.
But performing a thorough prostate biopsy can run into technical difficulties. The 12-point biopsy blindly samples tissue from across the prostate gland, but it can miss a cancer by not probing in the right places.
Several years ago, researchers at the NIH Clinical Center, Bethesda, MD, envisioned a solution. They’d use specially designed MRI images of a man’s prostate to guide the biopsy needle to areas in the prostate that look suspicious and deserve a closer look under a microscope.
Through a cooperative research-and-development agreement, NIH and the now- Florida-based Philips Healthcare created an office-based, outpatient prostate biopsy device, called UroNav, that was later approved by the Food and Drug Administration. The UroNav system relies on software that overlays MRI images highlighting suspicious areas onto real-time ultrasound images of the prostate that are traditionally used to guide biopsy procedures.
The new technology led to a large clinical study led by Peter Pinto, a researcher with NIH’s National Cancer Institute. The study results, published in 2015, found that the MRI-targeted approach was indeed superior to the 12-point biopsy at detecting aggressive prostate cancers .
But some doctors had questions about how best to implement the UroNav system and whether it could replace the 12-point biopsy. The uncertainty led to a second clinical study to nail down more answers, and the results were just published in The New England Journal of Medicine.
The research team enrolled 2,103 men who had visible prostate abnormalities on an MRI. Once in the study, each man underwent both the 12-point blind biopsy and the MRI-targeted approach—all in a single office visit. Based on this two-step approach, 1,312 people were diagnosed with prostate cancer. Of that total, 404 men had evidence of aggressive cancer, and had their prostates surgically removed.
The researchers then compared the diagnoses from each approach alone versus the two combined. The data showed that the combined biopsy found 208 cancers that the standard 12-point biopsy alone would have missed. Adding the MRI-targeted biopsy also helped doctors find and sample the more aggressive cancers. This allowed them to upgrade the diagnosis of 458 cancers to aggressive and in need of more full treatment.
Combining the two approaches also led to more accurate diagnoses. By carefully analyzing the 404 removed prostates and comparing them to the biopsy results, the researchers found the 12-point biopsy missed the most aggressive cancers about 40 percent of the time. But the MRI-targeted approach alone missed it about 30 percent of the time. Combined, they did much better, underestimating the severity of less than 15 percent of the cancers.
Even better, the combined biopsy missed only 3.5 percent of the most aggressive tumors. That’s compared to misses of about 17 percent for the most-aggressive cancers for the 12-point biopsy alone and about 9 percent for MRI-targeted biopsy alone.
It may take time for doctors to change how they detect prostate cancer in their practices. But the findings show that combining both approaches will significantly improve the accuracy of diagnosing prostate cancer. This will, in turn, help to reduce risk of suboptimal treatment (too much or too little) by allowing doctors and patients to feel more confident in the biopsy results. That should come as good news now and in the future for the families and friends of men who will need an accurate prostate biopsy to make informed treatment decisions.
 Cancer State Facts: Prostate Cancer. National Cancer Institute Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program.
 MRI-targeted, systematic, and combined biopsy for prostate cancer diagnosis. Ahdoot M, Wilbur AR, Reese SE, Lebastchi AH, Mehralivand S, Gomella PT, Bloom J, Gurram S, Siddiqui M, Pinsky P, Parnes H, Linehan WM, Merino M, Choyke PL, Shih JH, Turkbey B, Wood BJ, Pinto PA. N Engl J Med. 2020 Mar 5;382(10):917-928.
 Comparison of MR/ultrasound fusion-guided biopsy with ultrasound-guided biopsy for the diagnosis of prostate cancer. Siddiqui M, Rais-Bahrami, George AK, Rothwax J, Shakir N, Okoro C, Raskolnikov D, Parnes HL, Linehan WM, Merino MJ, Simon RM, Choyke PL, Wood BJ, and Pinto PA. JAMA. 2015 January 27;313(4):390-397.
Prostate Cancer (National Cancer Institute/NIH)
Video: MRI-Targeted Prostate Biopsy (YouTube)
Pinto Lab (National Cancer Institute/NIH)
NIH Support: National Cancer Institute; NIH Clinical Center
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
Early detection usually offers the best chance to beat cancer. Unfortunately, many tumors aren’t caught until they’ve grown relatively large and spread to other parts of the body. That’s why researchers have worked so tirelessly to develop new and more effective ways of screening for cancer as early as possible. One innovative approach, called “liquid biopsy,” screens for specific molecules that tumors release into the bloodstream.
Recently, an NIH-funded research team reported some encouraging results using a “universal” liquid biopsy called CancerSEEK . By analyzing samples of a person’s blood for eight proteins and segments of 16 genes, CancerSEEK was able to detect most cases of eight different kinds of cancer, including some highly lethal forms—such as pancreatic, ovarian, and liver—that currently lack screening tests.
In a study of 1,005 people known to have one of eight early-stage tumor types, CancerSEEK detected the cancer in blood about 70 percent of the time, which is among the best performances to date for a blood test. Importantly, when CancerSEEK was performed on 812 healthy people without cancer, the test rarely delivered a false-positive result. The test can also be run relatively cheaply, at an estimated cost of less than $500.
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
After surgically removing a tumor from a cancer patient, doctors like to send off some of the tissue for evaluation by a pathologist to get a better idea of whether the margins are cancer free and to guide further treatment decisions. But for technical reasons, completing the pathology report can take days, much to the frustration of patients and their families. Sometimes the results even require an additional surgical procedure.
Now, NIH-funded researchers have developed a groundbreaking new microscope to help perform the pathology in minutes, not days. How’s that possible? The device works like a scanner for tissues, using a thin sheet of light to capture a series of thin cross sections within a tumor specimen without having to section it with a knife, as is done with conventional pathology. The rapidly acquired 2D “optical sections” are processed by a computer that assembles them into a high-resolution 3D image for immediate analysis.