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This new imaging tech lets researchers see inside Cancer cells


All cancers are different and understanding how they interact with one another and their environment can make the difference between a patient living or dying.


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Following on from work that let scientists record living human cells in real time, and work that lets doctors use cells own proteins to record everything that happened within them, now scientists have identified a novel imaging technology that allows them to “see” inside a single living cancer cell and observe how it interacts with its surroundings.


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Led by the University of Surrey in the UK, the team sought to view and study the fatty contents (lipids) present within the cancer cells. Lipids are key components of cells, it allows cancer cells specifically to grow, multiply, and metastasize.

The technique was developed in collaboration with the University of College London and involves the pharmaceutical company GSK and the companies Yokogawa and Sciex.

Using Yokogawa’s Single Cellome System SS2000, individual cancer cells were sampled from a glass culture dish. This innovative system extracts single live cells using tiny tubes, allowing for precise analysis. These tubes are barely 10 µm wide, half the diameter of the thinnest human hair.

In the next step, the cells were stained with fluorescent dye which enabled the researchers to monitor lipid droplets throughout the experiment.  Then, following this extensive procedure, the team collaborated with Sciex to create a novel mass spectrometry approach. This method allowed them to break the lipids and determine the cell’s actual makeup.


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This entire process led to observing how cancer cells evolve in response to changes in their surroundings.

Johanna Von Gerichten, from Surrey’s School of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, said that the trouble with cancer cells is that “no two are alike.”

“That makes it harder to design good treatment, because some cells will always resist treatment more than others. Yet it has always proven tricky to study live cells after they have been removed from their natural environment, in enough detail to truly understand their makeup,” Von Gerichten said.

“That is why it is so exciting to be able to sample live cells under a microscope and study their fatty contents one by one.”


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The researchers further used this newly discovered approach to analyze the fatty lipid molecules within several cancer cells. Interestingly, the researchers identified differences in the lipid profiles of various cells.

“Our new method paves the way for studying cancer cells in detail we’ve never seen before. One day, we might be able to see how individual cancer cells communicate with their neighbours. That could unlock new, more targeted treatments,” said Carla Newman, Associate Director, Cellular Imaging and Dynamics at GSK in the press release.

This technique could provide valuable insights into how different types of cancer respond to treatments. It might also help doctors understand the impact of irradiation on cells, specifically how some cancer cells resist radiation treatment. This resistance may result in relapse of the cancer.


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A deeper understanding of cancer biology may lead to the development of more effective treatments in the future.  Moreover, the researchers state that studying lipids inside single cells may help various health areas, including immunity, and infectious diseases.

The findings were published in the journal Analytical Chemistry.

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