PHOENIX, Ariz. -- Jan. 30, 2019 -- Melding the genetic and cellular analysis of tumors with how they appear in medical images could give physicians and other cancer therapy specialists new insights into how to best treat patients, especially those with brain cancer, according to a new study led by the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen), an affiliate of City of Hope.
Published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE, this study suggests that the tumor microenvironment -- essentially all the cells both in and surrounding a tumor -- play a vastly under-studied role in the development and growth of cancer.
"This study is a bridge between genetic sequencing, single-cell analysis and high-resolution medical imaging," said Dr. Michael Berens, Professor and Director of TGen's Cancer and Cell Biology Division, head of the institute's Glioma Research Lab, and one of the study's lead authors. "By literally focusing on how tumors look on the outside, as well as spelling out their DNA cell characteristics on the inside, we believe we can provide physicians, oncologists, radiologists, surgeons and others with timely information about how to best attack each patient's cancer."
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This type of analysis is especially needed for brain cancer patients, whose fast-growing tumors are among the most difficult to diagnose, treat, remove and monitor. Because of the way brain tumors infiltrate surrounding healthy brain tissue, it is difficult for surgeons to remove all of the cancer without causing potentially catastrophic damage to a patient's memory and ability to function. And because of a matrix of tiny blood vessels that surround and protect the brain, only the smallest molecules can enter, limiting the types of drugs that could help shrink brain tumors.
Adding to the difficulty is the fact that each patient's brain tumor cells are different. Even the individual cancer cells within the tumor can vary.
"(The) diverse cellular composition and cellular interactions have not been well characterized," according to the study.
To better understand these cancers, Dr. Berens and others correlated the genetic and protein fingerprints of brain cancer cells with how those cells, and surrounding cells looked, using MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), a test that is routinely performed as soon as brain cancer is suspected.
Drawback of DNA analysis without imaging
Currently, to characterize tumors at the molecular level, scientists commonly grind up many cells from a biopsy and extract DNA, RNA and other genomic materials so that the tumor can be sequenced and researchers can tell what genes, or set of genes, might be misbehaving to cause the cancer. But they can't tell how those cancer cells may have interacted with other nearby cells. The spatial and cellular context is lost.