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Mass spectrometry imaging

Building a 'Google Earth' of cancer

The Grand Challenge, a new Cancer Research UK initiative, aims to overcome the biggest challenges facing cancer researchers in a global effort to beat cancer sooner

Funded through Cancer Research UK's Grand Challenge scheme, NPL's Professor Josephine Bunch leads a group of international and multidisciplinary chemists, physicists and biologists from the UK to develop a reproducible, standardised way to fully map tumours with extraordinary precision.

Now at the end of its first year, this ground-breaking project has progressed with impressive speed and achieved some remarkable results. These advancements are set to transform our understanding of cancer and open the door to new and better ways to diagnose and treat the disease.

The world's first 'Rosetta Stone' of cancer cell metabolism

In the same way cartographers build maps of cities and countries to help people get around, scientists build maps of tumours to better understand their inner workings. But despite significant advances in technology and our understanding of cancer, our tumour maps remain incomplete. What's missing is our ability to see down to the very core of cancer cells and understand how changes in their metabolism can impact their overall state and function within a tumour. No one has ever mapped tumours in this level of detail before – until now.

The 'Rosetta' team are focusing on breast, bowel and pancreatic tumours, as well as investigating an aggressive type of brain tumour. They are working to capture changes to these metabolites as tumours develop or respond to treatments while simultaneously recording information about the cell's exact location within the tumour.

Superimposing these data with maps revealing information about the underlying genetics of these cells will produce the world's first 'Rosetta Stone' of cancer cell metabolism – a high-resolution metabolic map that offers unprecedented insight into a cell's biochemical state. This cutting-edge approach is generating vast amounts of data, which will be made freely available to the research community, providing a Google Earth-type view of a tumour, on a scale that we have never known before.

Thanks to Grand Challenge, we've been able to build a collective force of physicists, chemists and biologists – all coming together for the first time to map cancer in unprecedented detail. Our goal is to find out how tumours survive and why they keep growing. By applying our powerful analysis techniques to this problem, we want to gain new insight into these fundamental processes and develop new and better ways to diagnose and treat cancer

Dr Josephine Bunch - Lead Investigator, NPL

The impact

The scale and precision of the Rosetta team's approach to mapping tumours is truly remarkable – combining exceptionally specialist instruments and methods and applying them to the cancer field for the very first time. By creating such detailed representations of tumours, they are set to transform our understanding of cancer.

First year of success – identifying drug resistance

The Rosetta team developed an imaging pipeline that produces an ultra-high resolution picture of the metabolism of tumours – allowing the team to map the distribution of cancer drugs within a tumour, as well as changes in cell metabolism.

In year one, by analysing pre-clinical tumours treated with different AstraZeneca cancer drugs, the Rosetta team were able to provide valuable insight into the distribution of the drugs within the tumour. Importantly the results highlighted hotspots of drug resistance, illustrating the power of the imaging techniques, which can revolutionise understanding of drug penetration and treatment resistance.

Building on this extraordinary preliminary result, the team is now focused on precisely optimising every step in their pipeline to improve the resolution and reproducibility of their unique tumour maps.

Meet the team

Find out more about the Rosetta project

The team uses a variety of new mass spectrometry imaging techniques and instruments they've developed to study individual breast, bowel and pancreatic tumours; the cancers where they believe they can make the biggest difference, fastest.

From the whole tumour right down to the individual fats and proteins in cells (the metabolites), to the tumour microenvironment, they will map and visualise every bit of these tumours to create faithful 3D representations of them for the first time.

By doing this, they aim to create the equivalent of a 'Google Earth' that will allow you not only to identify a house and where it is in a country, but also who's inside, what they're eating and watching on TV.

By creating such detailed representations of these tumours, our understanding of cancer will improve and we will be able to identify new and better ways to diagnose and treat the disease.

The team will also create a database containing their data which will be available to researchers around the globe, and strive to create a standardised way for other scientists and doctors to use these new techniques in their work and in the clinic to help them look at other cancers in the same way and speed up progress against the disease.