Laser ablation helps to home in on cancer cells

Researchers from the Institute of Molecular Life Sciences at the University of Zurich, in cooperation with ETH Zurich and University Hospital Zurich (all in Switzerland), have found a way to comprehensively profile and visualize tumor cells from patient samples.

The researchers' technique is based on methods that are already routinely used in hospitals, with two important innovations. First, the biomarkers are visualized using pure metal isotopes instead of dyes; to do so, biomarkers on very thin tissue sections are labeled with antibodies, which are coupled to the isotopes. Then, tiny pieces of tissue are removed with a laser system developed by Prof. Detlef Günther from ETH Zurich, and the metal isotopes of the pieces are measured with a mass spectrometer that can determine the mass and quantity of the individual metal isotopes. Doing so gets around the problem of the limited amount of colors in analysis of biological samples, explains Bernd Bodenmiller, assistant professor for Quantitative Biology at the University of Zurich, who led the work.

Related: Femtosecond laser ablation sheds new insight on cell division

Information about the cells and their control circuits is no longer qualitative. With the new measurement method, it is possible to precisely determine which cells experience what effect and to which extent. In this way, the weak points of the control system can be pinpointed and this helps in the development of new therapeutic approaches. Bodenmiller says this is the reason why it is becoming increasingly important to understand these interactions for diagnosis and therapy.

Initial measurement results of the new biomarker technique for breast cancer have revealed the heterogeneity of tumors. As a consequence of major growth, some tumors suffer from oxygen deficiency on the inside while others misuse the body's own immune cells to drive their growth. Cell-cell interaction and cell location in the center or on the edges of the tumor also have a decisive influence. One thing is clear: no tumor is like any other and Bodenmiller believes that treatment should reflect this.

Next, Bodenmiller's research team wishes to use the new measurement method to explore the roles played by control circuits and cell communication in metastasis formation.

Full details of the research team's work appear in the journal Nature Methods; for more information, please visit


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