New imaging tool could improve cancer diagnosis

CHICAGO Wed Apr 15, 2009 1:08am BST

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CHICAGO (Reuters) - A new imaging technique that uses tiny, dye-containing particles to "fingerprint" proteins within a single cell may lead to better ways to diagnose and treat cancer, U.S. researchers said on Tuesday.

If the technique succeeds on a larger scale, it could improve the ability not only to diagnose cancers, but to determine how aggressive a tumor is and how likely it is to respond to therapy.

"We could use it for diagnosis and maybe to help plan an appropriate treatment for a specific indication," said Cathy Shachaf, a researcher at Stanford University whose study appears in the Public Library of Science Journal PLoS One.

Shachaf said the effort is designed to give doctors a better look at the machinery inside a cell.

"Different types of cells are active in cancer," Shachaf said. "What we tried to do is develop technology to be able to look at the proteins active in a single cell to able to define and distinguish different types of cancer cells from each other."

She said current cell imaging technology known as flow cytometry uses antibodies tagged with fluorescent dye to detect proteins, which light up as they flow through a beam of light.

But the images can become muddy if there are too many overlapping colors, limiting the number of proteins that can be imaged simultaneously to about 20.

Rather than simple fluorescent dyes, the Stanford team used special nanoparticle probes created by Intel Corp that give off distinct signals.

"Instead of giving us a very broad, smooth spectrum they give us sharp fingerprints," Shachaf said.

Shachaf's team used the technology to detect two distinct cancer proteins simultaneously, but she said they have imaged as many as nine in the lab.

"What we've done is shown we can use these particles to detect specific proteins in a single cell," She said.

Shachaf said the team hopes eventually to be able to image as many as 100 distinct features inside a cell.

"The goal of this is to outdo current technology," she said.

(Editing by Maggie Fox and Eric Beech)

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