Commentary: Encouraging advances now underway in cancer research

The field of cancer genomics is rapidly advancing both in knowledge and in relevance to the treatment of cancer, as detailed genetic profiling of human cancers has now become possible. Mass spec imaging is helping to take that farther.

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This commentary originally ran on our Cancer Research News website at

We now know that cancer is caused by the accumulation of errors that occur in the “molecular machinery” of cells, resulting from environmental, hereditary and lifestyle factors, that cause the cells to escape the body’s normal physiological controls and immune mechanisms to check and destroy these aberrant cells, allowing the cancer cells to become independently growing cell populations that we call tumors.
It makes sense that the more we know about the underlying errors in this molecular machinery, both at the genetic level and also the “molecular production” of the cells (the proteins, lipids, metabolites that the cells produce to carry out their biological functions), the better we will understand the underlying basis of a specific cancer, and therefore how best to treat it.
The field of cancer genomics (studying changes that occur in the DNA of cancer cells) is rapidly advancing both in knowledge and in relevance to the treatment of cancer, as detailed genetic profiling of human cancers has now become possible. New data that defines the genetic makeup of tumors has led to the development of “molecular therapies” that specifically relate to genomic information. Through cancer genomics, the genetic molecular basis of malignancy can be identified; specific oncogenes and tumor suppressor genes have been discovered that are involved in the process of oncogenesis. Cancer genomics has helped to lead oncologists to incorporate molecular approaches to cancer diagnosis and treatment selection.
There is also a new technology that allows the identification and imaging of individual molecules that are produced by cancer cells, rapidly and directly, without the use of antibodies or radioisotopes. Hundreds of specific molecules can be identified and image-displayed, providing direct molecular analysis of the cancer cells and specific “molecular profiles” that characterize the specific tumor and can lead to more precise treatment selection and disease monitoring.
Called “mass spec imaging,” or MSI, the technology works with instruments called mass spectrometers to enable the visual depiction of molecules in tissue. MSI has both 2D and 3D molecular visualization and bioinformatics capabilities to analyze and display very large datasets; it is not unusual to identify over 500 molecules in a single analysis. The molecular databases produced by MSI aid the “molecular eyesight” of researchers and physicians.
Our company’s scientists collaborate with research teams at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute to apply MSI technology to analyze cancer cells. The initial focus is early-stage lung adenocarcinoma, and the studies will utilize MSI to generate molecular data profiles of cancer cells in tissue and biofluids to improve the understanding of a specific cancer’s origin.
One of the advantages of MSI is that one can visualize the spatial localization of numerous biomolecules directly in tissue sections without any prior knowledge of the specific molecules being analyzed; thus, it can serve as a powerful tool for new molecular discovery.
MSI can show what is occurring at the molecular level that cannot be observed by histology alone, such as multiple subregions within a single tumor and molecular changes outside of the histological tumor margin.
Another application of MSI in cancer is what we call “pathology-directed mass spectrometry profiling.” This is a targeted approach where the pathologist defines the cell areas on a tissue section to be analyzed, and we provide molecular profiles that are specific to the tumor cell sub-types, such as high- and low-grade tumor and adjacent normal cells, thereby adding useful molecular information to the histological examination of the tumor.
Improvements in the management and treatment of cancer can have a huge, positive impact on our society, with substantial social and economic benefits far beyond the individual. With the advent of MSI technology, a new capability is now available to rapidly and comprehensively provide molecular profiles of cancer cells, to elucidate the molecular changes that characterize the specific tumor, offering the promise of new, cancer disease stage-specific biomarkers and points of therapeutic intervention that can lead to improved treatment outcomes.

Stephen Turner is CEO and chairman of the board at Protea Biosciences, positions he has held since founding the company in July 2001. Previously, he has also held executive leadership positions at Quorum Sciences Inc., Oncor Inc. and Bethesda Research Laboratories Inc., which he founded in 1975, and also served as director of marketing for Becton, Dickinson & Co.'s Clinical Microbiology Division. Turner received his B.A. from Stanford University in 1967, and in 1994, was awarded the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award in Life Sciences for the Washington D.C. Region.

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