Looking cancer in the eye

12 October 2010

Scientists from the UK and Japan have discovered a way to identify pre-cancerous stem cells in the eye using absorbance spectra data.

Cancerous tumours in the cornea can cause loss of vision and, if left untreated, can become agressive. Treatment is to cut out the cancerous cells but there is often a high chance of the disease recurring. Identifying normal tissue that has the potential to become cancerous prior to treatment could ensure complete removal and lower the risk of cancer reoccurring after treatment.

Despite decades of intense research, there are currently very few proficient stem cell biomarkers for the cornea. Now a team lead by Frank Martin at the University of Lancaster, UK, have used the sensitive and high-throughput approach of synchrotron-based Fourier-transform infrared microspectroscopy to create an image map of cornea samples to recognise differences between cell types and highlight prospective biomarkers.

Characterising cells in the cornea could prevent recurring cancer

Biological specimens absorb the mid-infra red light allowing generation of an IR spectrum consistent with a biochemical-cell fingerprint. By coupling a microscope to a Fourier-transform IR spectrometer to allow, Martin's team were able to visualise the samples and select areas to map. Once selected areas are analysed in a stepwise fashion across a rectangular grid, allowing distinguishing biomarkers to be identified.

'In the future, this research may well have a direct impact on the diagnosis and treatment of cornea cancer patients. However, more immediately it will have a larger impact in the field of spectroscopy and stem cells due to the potential of the technique for characterisation and identification of cancer and disease diagnosis, and in the field of regenerative medicine,' says Martin.

Phil Heraud, who analyses the biochemistry of cells at Monash University in Australia comments: 'understanding the nature, properties and occurrence of tumour propagating cells, the so called cancer stems cells, is considered vital for the development of new more effective cancer therapies. The work demonstrates synchrotron IR microspectroscopy to be a powerful new phenotypic probe for these studies.'

The team now plan to extend their analysis to a larger number of tissues to determine a unifying stem cell marker for corneal stem cells.

Jennifer Newton


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