Call it expressionism—a team including physicians from the Morehouse School of Medicine is hoping that their portraits of proteins will save lives.
Cancer doesn’t want you to know it’s there. It wants to blend in with the crowd. It wants to look innocuous. And to a large extent, it does. Prior to forming a tell-tale tumor, cancer cells—superficially, at least—are virtual dead-ringers for healthy ones.
But with a little trickery, scientists can often get a cancer cell to give the game away. And sometimes the result is a captivating image that wouldn’t be out of place at an abstract art exhibit. Such is the case for the microscope images shown here, taken by Amr Mohamed and Deniece Johnson, residents at the Morehouse School of Medicine, and their collaborators at Emory University’s School of Medicine.
The images show thin slices of cancerous stomach and colon tissue, each slice just one twentieth the thickness of a human hair. The brown splotches are regions rich in P62 and ubiquitin, two proteins associated with the formation and spread of tumors. Mohamed, Johnson, and their colleagues made the images by infusing the tissue samples with an antibody, tagged with brown dye, that binds specifically to the cancer-linked proteins. The technique, known as immunohistochemistry, has been around for the better part of a century but hasn’t extensively been used to detect P62 and ubiquitin in gastrointestinal cancers.
Aesthetics aside, the images suggest a potential strategy for the early detection of stomach and colon cancer. For healthy tissues with normal levels of P62 and ubiquitin, immunohistochemistry should produce images that are mostly white. That is, the brown splotches should cover less than 20% of the frame. But the tissues sampled by Mohamed, Johnson, and their coworkers, collected from more than 100 different cancer patients, consistently yielded images that were equal parts brown and white. That suggests P62 and ubiquitin were being vastly overexpressed in those patients.
It’s possible that overexpression of P62 and Ubiquitin isn’t merely an indicator of cancer, but that it also somehow helps cancer proliferate: High levels of the proteins have been associated with more aggressive, more resilient, and more fatal pathologies. If that’s indeed the case, then images like the ones made by Mohamed, Johnson, and their coworkers may not just unmask a patient’s cancer, they might provide a vital roadmap for defeating it.