February 1, 2017 / All Stories

What do tumors and snowflakes have in common?

Through the use of new technologies, scientists are finding that like snowflakes, no two tumors are alike.

When identified, Circulating Tumor Cells help researchers better understand how to treat a tumor.

Seeing inside of tumors

In real estate, it’s about location, location, location. In cancer, that was once true for tumors, as well.

Doctors would take tissue from a tumor, stain it with dye and then examine it under a microscope to see the size, shape and look of the cells. This information, along with the location of the tumor – on the lung, in the breast and so on – led to diagnosis and determined the treatment path for patients.

“What we know now is that tumors are like snowflakes – each one is unique and very intricate in its design,” says Anahita Bhathena, Ph.D., Lake County head of translational oncology and precision medicine, AbbVie.

“Because of the great strides being made in advancing new technologies, scientists are learning just how complex tumors really are, and all of this new information is taking us down unexplored paths that we hope will lead to breakthrough medicines for patients.”

Watch Anahita describe how medicine is moving toward more individualized tumor treatment approaches.

A visual history of tumor imaging

More than 100 years ago, scientists started using haematoxylin and eosin (H&E) staining to visualize tumors under a microscope. Only in the past two decades have a number of new techniques emerged that are helping researchers to decipher tumors.
Look at the images below and their respective descriptions to see what the scientists gain when using these techniques.

Figure A. Late 1800s: Haematoxylin and eosin (H&E) staining was introduced, showing a tumor’s makeup (size, shape, look of cells) under a microscope.

Figure B. Multiplex immunohistochemistry (IHC) techniques helped scientists to determine both the presence and position of various proteins in tumors.

Figure C. Completed in 2003, information from the Human Genome Project helped scientists map the genomes of individual tumors, revealing that each one had thousands of genomic variations.

Figure D. Recently, the use of immunoprofiling became widespread, allowing scientists to see the immune cells present in or around each tumor and understand why some tumors respond to certain medicines and become resistant to others.

Figure E. In certain types of cancers, tumor cells can be found in circulation in the blood (Circulating Tumor Cells, or CTCs).  The recent ability to identify and profile these CTCs helps researchers better understand a tumor with a simple blood draw, yielding insights on changes in the tumor characteristics over the course of the disease and treatment.

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Dave Freundel
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