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STED Nanoscopy at the forefront of cancer research

Interview with Dr. Alison Dun of the Edinburgh Super-Resolution Imaging Consortium (ESRIC), UK

Alison Dun is the postdoctoral facility manager for the Edinburgh Super-Resolution Imaging Consortium (ESRIC), Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, UK. She has used a large range of microscope techniques during her PhD work. In a video published by BBC News, Alison Dun explains how STED (stimulated emission depletion) microscopes help researchers in the fight against cancer by getting a better understanding of the processes that go wrong in the human body, thus giving hope for future treatments.

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Dr. Dun, what are currently the major topics of cancer research at ESRIC?

As an open access facility working with scientists from across not just Scotland, but the rest of the world, there is work underway across a whole spectrum of diseases including cancer. One project in particular with Dr. Nick Leslie at Heriot-Watt University uses super-resolution to look at a protein called PTEN, which in healthy individuals suppresses tumor growth. The reduction or complete lack of this protein is indicated in many cancers, such as prostate, breast and lung.

For which questions or problems in these fields can STED Nanoscopy provide answers that other types of microscopy cannot?

The biological structures that need to be examined to understand diseases, such as cancer, is on such a small scale, so small we still cannot truly know and see with our own eyes what is happening inside cells. However STED nanoscopy allows us to get closer to visualize these than ever before, revealing structures inside cells not previously visible. This is particularly the case with the new improved ability to look at these cellular structures in live conditions.

What are the most impressive advantages of STED Nanoscopy?

All of the microscopy techniques have their advantages and ‘challenges’ and so it is important to use the right tool for the job. Saying that I believe that STED has a real advantage over other techniques in that what you see if what you get, you have a reference confocal image to provide confidence in the resulting STED image as you see the structures revealed when the STED laser is turned on. Another point is that seeing structures at an even smaller scale than STED can achieve involves compromises in either the extreme sample preparation or processing. STED provides a good balance between sample preparation and technical implementation with impactful results. The ability to do multicolor has been a huge improvement and for biologists this is so important as it allows us to get a better picture of what is happening with different structures and proteins.

How do you think this technology will influence future cancer research?

Until we understand how a cancer comes about at the molecular level, i.e. at the nanoscale, we cannot develop the drugs needed to treat or prevent it. Super-resolution microscopy enables us to better understand things at the molecular level in human cells, visualize new structures, obtain a better understanding of the processes that go wrong inside our bodies in terms of cancer.