Advanced 3D Single-Molecule Tracking Microscope Helps Researchers Understand Cancer

Tim Yeh Cong Liu Allen Liu Evan Perillo Andy Dunn

New research published in Nature Communications holds promise for understanding the movement of cancer cells. Pictured above are the paper's UT Austin authors, left to right: Tim Yeh, Cong Liu, Allen Liu, Evan Perillo, and Andrew Dunn (not pictured Khang Huynh).

The development of an innovative super-resolution microscope could help researchers better understand cancer.

A paper published in Nature Communications authored by Evan Perillo, a graduate student working with Professors Andrew Dunn and Tim Yeh, describes an imaging system that can detect movement of single epidermal growth factor receptors (EGFRs), an important membrane receptor in cancer growth.

Before this imaging system, there has not been a precise way to view molecular movement of membrane receptors. By tracking where receptors travel, researchers will gain a better understanding of the disease's behavior and be better equipped to provide solutions for prohibiting cancer growth.

Researchers have coined this technique: Tracking of Single particles Using Nonlinear and Multiplexed Illumination (TSUNAMI).

The research, done in collaboration with scientists from MD Anderson Cancer Center, including Mien-Chie Hung, a world expert in receptor biology, answers longstanding fundamental questions about cancer receptors. For instance, before this research there was no direct evidence that cancer receptors are able to travel from a cell's membrane to the nucleus, but experiments show this can be the case.

TSUNAMI is notable for two reasons. First it can image molecular movement traveling at a high speed, with a time resolution much faster than what a camera can achieve. Secondly, the TSUNAMI is a type of super-resolution microscopy, which means it has the capability to image at a very small scale, ten times smaller than confocal light microscopy, which is the current standard.

illustrated diagram with close up of cancer spheroid

Researchers are conducting 3D tracking experiments on cancer spheroids. A spheroid is small in size, about the same diameter as two strands of hair, and contains hundreds of cancer cells. The line in the diagram shows the path one receptor took from the membrane to a cell’s nucleus.

Dr. Yeh says the group's next steps are to conduct more experiments to determine if there are predictable patterns for where cancer receptors travel. The future research is funded by the National Cancer Institute's Innovative Molecular Analysis Technologies Program through an R21 grant.

Other authors of the paper include biomedical engineering students Allen Liu, Khang Huynh and Cong Liu.