With all cancers—but particularly with esophageal cancers—early detection can mean the difference between effective treatment and devastation. Now, using fluorescence endoscopy and molecular imaging, researchers have identified changes that indicate precancerous cells in the esophagus, allowing easier detection and removal.1
Using fluorescently labeled wheat germ proteins, researchers at the University of Cambridge's MRC Cancer Cell Unit (Cambridge, England) conducted a study in which they visualized the patterns of glycans, or sugar molecules, that line precancerous cells in the esophagus. Analyzing human tissue samples representing various stages of cancer progression, they found different glycans on the surface of precancerous cells. Because glycans have been revealed to be altered in a number of cancers, they theorized that these structures could be used as molecular targets for the endoscopic imaging of mucosal surfaces. The fluorescence approach enabled them to detect changes in glycan expression on the cell surface that accompany the transition from Barrett's esophagus through dysplasia to esophageal adenocarcinoma in-situ. The study demonstrates that coordinated changes in glycan expression begin before the development of esophageal adenocarcinoma—which means that this is a potential biomarker for dysplasia and for identification of those at risk of progression from Barrett's esophagus.
1. E.L. Bird-Lieberman et al., Nat. Med., doi:10.1038/nm. 2616 (2012).