Cancer is a complex and heterogeneous disease caused by cells deficient in growth regulation. Genetic and epigenetic changes in one or a group of cells disrupt normal function and result in autonomous, uncontrolled cell growth and proliferation.
Imaging has become a key tool in the study of cancer biology. High-resolution imaging is indispensable for the study of genetic and cell signaling changes that underlie cancer, whereas live-cell imaging is crucial for a deeper understanding of function and disease mechanisms. Microscopy techniques are also essential for the study of spatial relationships between different types of tumor cells. They are also important for understanding the role of the immune system in battling cancerous cells. For the latter, researchers rely on multicolor imaging for a faster rate of discovery.
Challenges when using imaging to study cancer
Research into cancer therapeutics often requires the combination of fluorescence microscopy and innovative functional assays. With optimal temporal and spatial resolution, researchers are able to monitor dynamic events in living cells, such as cell migration and metastasis. These dynamic processes are at the core of cancer development.
Understanding these processes has been challenging due to the difficulty of visualizing tumor cell behavior in real time. Fast imaging over prolonged periods of time tends to come with a sacrifice: either decreased resolution or, more often, harm to your precious specimens. The challenge is finding the imaging technique and system that provides you with the best data with the highest resolution while keeping the cells alive so that you can follow the processes of interest.
Multiplexing to understand mechanisms of disease
Multicolor fluorescence microscopy, either confocal or widefield based, is a fundamental tool to understand the spatial context, co-localization, and proximity of multiple biomarkers when studying complex events, such as immunosuppression or angiogenesis. This aim can often be challenging, as there are limits to the number of fluorophores you can successfully distinguish with this “multiplexing” approach. Fortunately, there are innovative imaging systems and strategies to improve the separation of fluorophores and increase the number of fluorescent probes to that which is needed in your experiment.
Finding the right tools
Cancer is complex and requires a myriad of methods that include spatiotemporally resolved, live-specimen, and single-cell imaging. More insights into cellular processes concerning cancer will come likely from methods with the highest possible resolution and multiparametric image analysis. Approaches like fluorescence confocal microscopy enable you to study multiple targets within tissues or cellular structures.
Advanced imaging techniques, such as super-resolution or, more recently, lifetime imaging or lightsheet, help you to better understand the molecular interactions and regulatory mechanisms behind tumor initiation, progression, and response to treatment.
Laser microdissection or correlative light and electron microscopy (CLEM) enable the study of spatial receptor arrangements in membranes and genome organization in cell nuclei.