New cell imaging method identifies aggressive cancer cells early

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Fluorescence that illuminates a specific protein within a cell's nucleus may help physicians identify cancer virulence and develop individualized treatment, according to researchers at Purdue University and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, according to a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The scientists created a technique that automatically locates and maps proteins involved in regulating cell behavior, said Sophie Lelièvre, Purdue assistant professor of basic medical sciences. The research results have for the first time made it possible to verify the distinction between multiplying cells that are harmless and those that are malignant.

Lelièvre and co-corresponding author on the study, David Knowles of the national lab, used human mammary cells to analyze nuclear protein distribution that shifted depending on whether a cell was malignant, had not yet developed a specific function or was a normally functioning mature mammary cell.

Ultimately, the scientists want to use the technique to determine not only if a lesion is malignant but also the exact kind of cancer and how likely it is to spread and the most appropriate treatment for a particular patient. Lelièvre, Knowles and their team used an antibody attached to a fluorescent molecule that targeted and linked with a specific nuclear protein from mammary tissue. When malfunctioning, this protein, called a nuclear mitotic apparatus protein (NuMA), has been linked to leukemia and breast cancer.

The imaging technique the researchers developed to identify NuMA location shifts is called an automated local bright feature image analysis. It recorded the average amount of luminescence throughout the nucleus and then located the brightest spots, which were the protein. The system then automatically measured the differences in the protein's distribution in each cell type and mapped it. This enabled the researchers to verify the changes exhibited by non-differentiated cells that were still multiplying, normal mammary cells and multiplying malignant cells. The ability to see the protein patterns in the nucleus gives scientists one more tool in advancing the identification of types of cancer and appropriate treatment, Lelièvre said. The imaging tool should work for mapping and analyzing locations of any nuclear protein.