MicroRNAs (miRNAs) are small molecules critical to gene expression. Researchers are creating artificial miRNAs capable of binding to, and silencing, genes associated with cancer. Delivering these miRNAs to their target is another challenge. This image shows a self-assembled nanoparticles (red) carrying miRNAs to an aggressive breast tumor in a mouse and sticking to the tumor target with the help of an adhesive glue. (Joao Conde, Nuria Oliva, Natalie Artz/Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT via NCI)

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.


Cancer immunotherapy in action: An oral cancer cell (white) is attacked by two T cells (red), part of the body’s immune response. (Rita Elena Serda/Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center at Baylor College of Medicine via NCI)

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.


The complex microenvironment that surrounds a tumor plays a crucial role in helping it grow and evade destruction. A human breast cancer cell (green) in a mouse is surrounded by several types of cells, including immune and blood vessel cells. (Steve Seung-Young Lee/University of Chicago Comprehensive Cancer Center via NCI)

Some breast cancer cells overexpress — that is, make too much — Nek3 (red), an enzyme that plays a role in how a cell organizes itself and moves through the body. These cells have enlarged focal adhesions and proteins (pink) that help them connect to surrounding tissues. (Charles V. Clevenger, Katherine Harrington/Massey Cancer Center at Virginia Commonwealth University via NCI)

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 human fusion protein, CBFA2T3-GLIS2, is a key driver of pediatric acute megakaryoblastic leukemia (AMKL). Researchers found a way to express CBFA2T3-GLIS2 (red) in larval fruit fly wing disc cells, confirming a major role for a signaling pathway, which may provide a target for new therapies. Nuclei (green) and actin filaments (purple) are also shown. (Suresh Marada/St. Jude Children's Research Hospital via NCI)

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.


Nanoparticles (red) are absorbed in the brain of a rat with glioblastoma (green). Researchers were testing whether the tiny particles could cross the blood-brain barrier to deliver drugs. (Eric Hoyeon Song, Alice Gaudin, W. Mark Saltzman/Yale Cancer Center via NCI)

Lung cancer cells invade surrounding tissues and start to spread. These cells have a gene mutation, LKB1 (green), that promotes invasion. The cells’ skeleton is in red and the cell nuclei are in blue. (Scott Wilkinson, Adam Marcus/Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University via NCI)