Cancer researchers need to be able to find cancer as early as possible. In hospitals, cancer patients are injected with a mildly radioactive tracer to light up their tumors for detection in various imaging machines. But using current instruments and protocols, tumors cannot be detected until they are already too large. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) researchers have a way to detect much smaller and newer tumors in tissues in a laboratory setting.
In this episode of Tools of the Trade at CSHL, we see CSHL Research Associate Joseph Merrill using a miniature version of a clinical imaging machine. It is a single-photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) scanner that pinpoints radioactivity in small regions of tissue. In this demonstration, a “phantom” canister—a stand-in for the tissue—is placed on a platform that slides inside the machine. There are four plates surrounding the platform that detect gamma radiation emitted from the tissue. As the machine rotates, it records the radioactivity from all different angles, determining the sources of radiation in three-dimensional space. Researchers combine that image with a 3D x-ray or CT scan of the tissue (thus SPECT-CT), allowing them to pinpoint tiny clumps of cancer cells deep within normal tissue.
According to CSHL Research Assistant Professor Scott Lyons, the ultimate goal of this work is to give researchers a way to see how well new treatments work in early stages of cancer in the laboratory. Seeing how individual tumors grow and respond to treatment in three dimensions allows for better understanding of tumor biology and the development of more effective therapies.