Spectroscopic imaging method reveals early changes leading to breast cancer

Purdue University (West Lafayette, IN) researchers have created a new imaging technology that reveals subtle changes in breast tissue, representing a way to determine a woman's risk of developing breast cancer and to study ways of preventing it.

Called vibrational spectral microscopy, the new technology identifies and tracks certain molecules by measuring their vibration with a laser. The technique works at high speed, enabling researchers to measure changes in real time in live tissue, says Ji-Xin Cheng, an associate professor of biomedical engineering and chemistry.

The researchers, using a special "3-D culture" that mimics living mammary gland tissue, also showed that a fatty acid found in some foods influences the early precancerous stage. Unlike conventional cell cultures, which are flat, the 3-D cultures have the round shape of milk-producing glands and behave like real tissue, says Sophie Lelièvre, an associate professor of basic medical sciences.

A live human mammary gland structure created in research that uses vibrational spectral microscopy to reveal subtle changes in breast tissue
A live human mammary gland structure created in research that uses vibrational spectral microscopy to reveal subtle changes in breast tissue, representing a potential tool to determine a woman's risk of developing breast cancer and to study ways of preventing the disease. Unlike conventional cell cultures, the 3-D cultures have the round shape of milk-producing glands and behave like real tissue. (Image courtesy of Purdue University/Shuhua Yue)

Researchers are studying changes that take place in epithelial cells, which make up tissues and organs where 90 percent of cancers occur. The changes in breast tissue are thought to be necessary for tumors to form, she says.

"By mimicking the early stage conducive to tumors and using a new imaging tool, our goal is to be able to measure this change and then take steps to prevent it," says Lelièvre. And by monitoring the same 3-D culture before and after exposure to certain risk factors, the new technique enables researchers to detect subtle changes in single live cells, says Cheng.

Cheng said his lab will continue to develop a hyperspectral imaging system capable of not only imaging a specific point in a culture, but also many locations to form a point-by-point map so that tissue polarity can be directly visualized.

The research is part of the International Breast Cancer and Nutrition (IBCN) project launched by Purdue in October 2010 to better understand the role nutrients and other environmental factors play in breast tissue alterations and cancer development.

The work appears in Biophysical Journal; for more information, please visit http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0006349512000963.

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