Cancer researchers are now taking tips from astronomers when it comes to analyzing cell slides. In order to definitively diagnose many cancers, especially rare cancers such as mesothelioma, a tissue biopsy must be examined through a microscope to identify abnormal cells. However, if researchers in the UK have their way, an automated process borrowed from their science comrades who focus on outer space could make microscopic analysis a thing of the past.
According to a study in the British Journal of Cancer, scientists from the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute, and the Department of Oncology and the Institute of Astronomy at the University of Cambridge, collaborated to adapt techniques “used by astronomers to automatically pick out indistinct objects in the night sky” for use in the cancer lab. The researchers developed image analysis algorithms adapted from astronomical algorithms in order to automate immunohistochemistry, the technique used in microscopic analysis to diagnose cancer.
Cellular analysis and biopsy techniques used when checking for cancer, as well as when determining the efficacy of a treatment, were discussed recently by a panel of oncologists on OncLive’s Peer Exchange Series. The oncologists agreed that biopsy results can be used not only to diagnose cancer but to drive a cancer patient’s treatment plan. Anne S. Tsao, MD, Director, Mesothelioma Program, The University of Texas MD Anderson Comprehensive Cancer Center, said when analyzing tissue samples, physicians need to “shoot for genetic testing and personalized medicine for treatment decisions.”
Professor Carlos Caldas, from Cancer Research UK’s Cambridge Institute, and senior author of the study, “Astronomical algorithms for automated analysis of tissue protein expression in breast cancer,” suggested that sophisticated techniques such as this will help researchers better understand “the key genes and proteins important in predicting the success or failure of different cancer treatments.”
“It’s great that our software, which was originally developed to help track down planets, is now also being used to help improve the outlook for cancer patients, much closer to home,” said Dr. Nicholas Walton from Cambridge University’s Institute of Astronomy in a press release from Cancer Research UK.
The researchers compared the results of the manual process with the automated process after measuring the levels of three different proteins linked to more aggressive cancers across 2,000 tissue samples from breast cancer patients.
“The results have been even better than we’d hoped,” the researchers reported. However, they pointed out that there is much more testing to be done, with the next test involving samples from more than 20,000 breast cancer patients.
Julie Sharp, senior science information manager at Cancer Research UK, says: “This unlikely collaboration between astronomers and cancer researchers is a prime example of how, by working together, scientists from different disciplines can bring about innovative new solutions for beating cancer.”
Mesothelioma patients have limited treatment options; however, breakthroughs like this can open another path towards personalized medicine. Treatments geared to patients’ unique genetic characteristics improve their survival chances. Mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the lungs, abdomen and heart caused by past exposure to asbestos, is diagnosed in close to 3,000 Americans each year.