NORTHWESTERN (US)—New research suggests it may be possible to detect early signs of cancer by looking for nanoscale changes in normal cells—even cells located some distance from a tumor.
A Northwestern University-led study of human colon, pancreatic, and lung cells is the first to report that cancer cells and their noncancerous cell neighbors, although quite different under the microscope, share very similar structural abnormalities on the nanoscale level.
The findings, obtained using an optical technique that can detect features as small as 20 nanometers, validate the “field effect,” a biological phenomenon in which cells located some distance from a malignant or premalignant tumor undergo molecular and other kinds of abnormal changes.
The nanoscale alterations were observed in cells far away from the tumor and, importantly, could be identified by assessing more easily accessible tissue, such as the cheek for lung cancer detection.
The partial wave spectroscopy (PWS) technique, once optimized, could be used to detect cell abnormalities early and help physicians assess who might be at risk for developing cancer, according to the researchers. Like a pap smear of the cervix, a simple brushing of cells is all that is needed to get the specimen required for testing.
The researchers also discovered that the abnormalities found in the nanoarchitecture of the colon cells are the same abnormalities as those found in the pancreas and lung, illustrating commonality across three very different organs.
“Our data provide a strong argument that these nanoscale changes are general phenomena in carcinogenesis and occur early in the process,” says Vadim Backman, professor of biomedical engineering and the paper’s senior author. “These changes occur not only in cancer cells but in cells far from the tumor site and are the same in at least three different types of cancer. Given its ability to detect these changes, PWS could be used in the early screening of a variety of cancers.”
Backman and his Northwestern colleagues recently developed PWS, which provides researchers with unprecedented information on the health of cells by measuring the increase in disorder—the structural variations—within the cell. PWS quantifies the statistical properties of cell nanoscale architecture by using the signal generated by light waves striking the complex structure of the cell.
A cell’s nanoarchitecture includes the fundamental “building blocks” of the cell, which drive the molecular processes that allow a cell to function. These structures are most likely to be altered with the onset of cancer formation, says Backman.
Backman’s colleague and coauthor, Hemant Roy, agrees. “While very preliminary, if validated, this approach may be of great clinical and biological value,” says Roy, director of gastroenterology research at NorthShore University HealthSystem. “Indeed, the ability to determine cancer risk by interrogating readily accessible tissue may provide an important step forward in cancer screening.”
“Partial wave spectroscopy is a paradigm shift from conventional diagnostic techniques, which involve interrogating the actual tumor region,” adds Hariharan Subramanian, a postdoctoral fellow in Backman’s research group and the paper’s first author.
The National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the V Foundation supported the research. The results are published online by the journal Cancer Research.
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