October 26, 2000

Ion Microscopy: Breakthrough in Cancer Research

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Cornell research scientists blazed a new trail recently with their discovery of an innovative method for closely observing the functions of cancer-fighting drugs in the malignant area. Subhash Chandra, Duane R. Smith and Prof. George Morrison, chemistry and chemical biology, say the technique, known as “ion microscopy,” shows the anticancer potential of a particular drug.

“Ion microscopy is [applicable] to studies of normal and cancer cells growing in cell cultures, animal models of a particular cancer and human tissues from tumors and other regions of interest,” Chandra said.

To determine the drug’s abilities, it is first necessary to pinpoint its exact location in the cell while at the same time providing a comparison of its accumulation in normal cells as opposed to cancerous ones.

Two categories of anticancer drugs, boronated drugs (used in the treatment of brain tumors) and taxol (also used to kill cancerous tumor cells during mitosis), were among those studied.

The development of the Secondary Ion Mass Spectrometry (SIMS) ion microscopy technique is a powerful new technology for studying ion transport in cell biology and applied studies in medicine, researchers said.

One of the most prominent features of the new technique is its ability to obtain information about the response of single cells and subcellular compartments. Until now, medical experts located radioactive molecules by autoradiography. Through ion microscopy, imaging time is shortened.

In ion microscopy, it is necessary to maintain the native chemical and structural makeup of the cells, accomplished by cryogenic (freeze-drying) methods. This ensures that the cellular chemicals are immobilized.

SIMS can also be used to study the location of molecules inside a cell by using modified molecules that contain labels with either stable nonradioactive or radioactive isotopes.

Funded by the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy, the project may enable the understanding of what role calcium plays in cell division and why cancer cells have abnormal calcium signaling.

The technique comes just after a report that Chandra authored earlier this year along with Smith and Prof. Morrison. Published in the Journal of Analytical Chemistry, the study focused on the biological and biomedical applications of ion microscopy.

Smith, like Chandra is a research associate and has been using ion microscopy over the past seven years to localize and quantify boron drug distributions in cell culture models, in tissues of animal brain tumor models and in human tumor/brain tissues for the boron neutron capture therapy research program.

For the past twenty-five years, Morrison’s group has contributed to the development of SIMS ion microscopy in materials and biological research, according to Cornell News Service.

Archived article by Chris Westgate