Delicately colored mosaics. Swirling currents of neon green. Who knew that cancer, so terrifying, could be so weirdly beautiful?
Adam Marcus, for one. A cancer researcher at Emory University’s Winship Cancer Institute, he embedded lung cancer cells in a gel and let them invade surrounding tissue for 24 hours. The resulting image he created looks like a gaily lit mainland, with a handful of tiny vessels — individual cancer cells — setting out for distant shores.
Marcus’s photo is one of more than 80 striking images in the National Cancer Institute's Cancer Close Up 2016 project. The collection features microscopy photographs of cancer-related cells, tissues and molecules from researchers at two dozen of the nation’s leading cancer centers.
The photographs, viewable online illustrate the frontiers of cancer research, and serve as exhibits at cancer conferences. They also are intended to spur public interest in science and perhaps entice young people to consider molecular biology as a career.
The NCI’s goal is to put together a portfolio with as many different kinds of cancer cells as possible, said Rick Manrow, who oversees the program.
“These images show the beauty of nature, as horrible as cancer is,” Manrow said. Marcus said, of his creation, “We were trying to imitate [cancer] metastasis,” but in the process created an intriguing work of abstract art. “With some of this research, you end up with some really cool photos.”
They aren’t exactly snapshots of the Grand Canyon. They focus, in minute detail, on nature’s menacing side and the serious work of the people grappling with it.
One photo from the Yale Cancer Center, for instance, shows nanoparticles being absorbed in the brain of a rat with glioblastoma, a lethal brain cancer. The researchers were trying to figure out whether the tiny particles could act as a drug-delivery device, carrying medications through the blood-brain barrier, which blocks most brain treatments.
Another image, created by Suresh Marada at the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, shows a human protein — the key driver of a serious pediatric cancer called AML — inserted into fruit fly cells for study and experimentation.
Yet another depicts immunotherapy, one of the hottest developments in cancer treatment today. It shows an oral cancer cell being attacked by T cells, which are part of the body’s immune system.
Rita Serda, who created that image while at the Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, said she used Photoshop to “color” the cells so you could tell the difference between the whitish cancer cells, which she kept white, and the T cells, which she made red. Otherwise, all the elements would have appeared a grayish white, said Serda, now at the University of New Mexico.
The NCI started the project last year by collecting photos from its own researchers. In soliciting photos from the cancer centers, it asked for images that are “highly compelling in terms of color, contrast and composition,” that represent important frontiers in cancer research and that use cutting-edge molecular microscopy techniques, according to its website.
“These images are done as part of research for studies to publish in journals or to present in slide presentations,” said Manrow, who is a senior adviser for science and policy in the NCI’s Office of Communications and Public Liaison. “We are the beneficiaries.”
Most of the photos, he said, are made with fluorescent optical microscopes with attached digital cameras. Scientists use various fluorescent stains to highlight specific cellular structures, he said, and these stains and dyes “light up” when exposed to specific wavelengths of light. Often, he added, the final multicolored images obtained are composites — overlays — of separate images taken using different wavelengths.