Detecting cancer in the body usually happens when the disease is already well underway to being mortally dangerous. Although there’s a myriad of cancers and ways to detect them, diagnostic tests typically look for biomarkers produced by tumors. And the bigger the tumor, the more biomarkers it releases, so the bigger it is the easier it is to detect. To get at the disease at its earlier stage, it would be useful to detect processes within cells that signal that the cells are becoming cancerous.
Chromatin, the stuff that chromosomes are made of and that plays a role in activating different genes, undergoes structural changes when a cell goes rogue, as a bunch of genes have to be expressed that weren’t activated when the cell was still healthy. Detecting these changes has been the work of researchers at Northwestern University, where a microscope based on a concept called Partial Wave Spectroscopy (PWS) has been built to be able to peer into a cell and detect that chromatin’s structure is changing.
Changes in chromatin packing, or the structure that chromatin undertakes, are hard to spot because they are often very small, anywhere from about two to 200 nanometers. Conventional microscopy doesn’t do so well at this scale, and so the structure of chromatin is hard to see. But, you don’t need to see the exact structure to find out if it’s changing, and that’s what the PWS microscope is able to accomplish.
While there’s certainly exciting clinical applications for this technology, we hope that it will serve more to explain how and why individual cells turn cancerous, perhaps helping humanity prevent the disease in the first place.
Here’s a video with more info from Northwestern: