Shining a light on cancer diagnosis

New research on molecular imaging may help fast-track how we identify cancerous cells.

Dr Brian Abbey is a Professor and Director of Research for the La Trobe Institute for Molecular Science. His work has generated worldwide attention thanks to one of his more recent projects, the NanoMslide. Able to manipulate light at the nanoscale, this smart microscope slide makes cells that have cancerous or benign abnormalities ‘light up’ with specific colours, providing medical professionals with additional information that can help with diagnosis.

It was a finding that followed seven years of research and collaboration with medical researchers, including La Trobe neurodegenerative disease researcher Dr Jacqueline Orian.

“Our first test was with a tissue sample that was relevant to diseases such as Alzheimer’s,” explained Dr Abbey. “We put it on the NanoMslide and had a look under the microscope and instantly saw all these really vivid colours from different components of the tissue jumping out at us. From there, we started doing more and more tests with different groups and found people were getting really excited about what they were seeing.”

Through a collaboration with the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, Dr Abbey and his team quickly established the slide’s potential use for cancer detection, with initial testing focused on breast cancer cells. Publishing his research in the prestigious Nature journal brought fame to the work.

“That was the dam-breaker. But there’s still so much work to do with the NanoMSlide. We are currently in discussions with pathologists and clinics about applying our slides to a range of different cancers critical to human health.”

Dr Abbey, meanwhile, continues research in other key areas of molecular imaging, with a particular focus on work that helps to increase the efficacy of drugs and reduce their side effects.

“I do a lot of work, particularly with colleagues in Germany, trying to create molecular movies using ultrafast X-ray snapshots. We trace the position of atoms, at the atomic scale, in real time. With each snapshot we capture a different conformation of the molecule. By combining those frames we are able to assemble them to make a 3D movie of the molecule.”

This work is being developed with the goal of helping pharmaceutical companies to tailor their drugs to be able to reduce unintended side effects.

“Molecular imaging is hugely important for the pharmaceutical industry in general, both to try and identify promising drug targets - molecules that might work effectively for particular diseases - but also to determine their specificity. One of the reasons you get side effects when you take a drug is that it interacts with molecules it shouldn’t be interacting with.”

Dr Abbey’s work, while technically complex, also relies on genuine interest. As he notes, “I’ve been interested in physics for as long as I could remember. It’s great to be working on multiple translational research projects with a truly fantastic team of collaborators at La Trobe.”