Microscopy centre to image the 'dark space' of cancer

Wednesday, 18 November, 2020

Microscopy centre to image the 'dark space' of cancer

The Australian Cancer Research Foundation (ACRF) has provided a $3 million grant to establish a custom-built microscopy centre to image the ‘dark space’ of cancer–immune interactions, enabling new advances in cancer research.

Based at Sydney’s Garvan Institute of Medical Research, the ACRF Centre for Intravital Imaging of Niches for Cancer Immune Therapy (ACRF INCITe Centre) is set to address a major challenge in the treatment of cancer: why some patients respond to immunotherapies, designed to arm the immune system against cancer, while others do not.

“For immunotherapy to be more effective, we need to bridge the gap in our understanding of how cancer cells interact with their local microenvironment to adapt to constantly changing conditions and how they evade immune destruction,” said Chief Investigator Associate Professor Marina Pajic, from the Garvan Institute. “These interactions are often short-lived and occur in sites that are inaccessible to visualisation by conventional microscopic techniques.”

With the help of the ACRF INCITe Centre, researchers should be able to see inside tumours at unprecedented temporal and spatial resolutions. According to Chief Investigator Professor Paul Timpson, from the Garvan Institute, it is “the first intravital imaging centre dedicated to studying cancer–immune cell interactions in vivo and at the molecular level”, and will “give us a comprehensive view of how the immune system can work to fight cancer”.

Two custom microscopes housed at the centre — the EndoNICHEscope and the Molecular NICHEscope — will enable researchers to study living tumours inside mouse models, in real time. The EndoNICHEscope will allow researchers to identify cancer and immune cells in previously inaccessible regions of tumours, using cutting-edge two-photon excitation imaging techniques, innovative adaptive optics technology and a minimally invasive microendoscope developed at the Australian National University. The Molecular NICHEscope will image dynamic cancer–immune cell interactions and signalling events in unprecedented detail, in otherwise inaccessible organs such as the lung and pancreas, using a state-of-the-art FLIM detection unit and sophisticated image processing software.

“Cancers hide from the immune system in highly complex and dynamic environments that can’t be visualised by conventional microscopes,” said Chief Investigator Professor Tri Phan from the Garvan Institute. “The custom-built microscopes in the ACRF INCITe Centre will overcome the current limitations and allow us to finally answer questions that we have not been able to address before.”

Upon launch next year, the centre will unite an interdisciplinary team of experts in cancer biology, physics and engineering from the Garvan Institute, the Australian National University, the University of Technology Sydney, QIMR Berghofer, the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research, the Centre for Cancer Biology and the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute. Collaborators from 23 research labs from across Australia will use a virtual network to investigate fundamental cancer biology, the role of cells, molecules and genes that regulate cancer–immune interactions, and new therapeutic approaches to enhance immunity against cancer. They will also address crucial questions, such as how immune cells can be activated in a breast cancer, how cancer–immune interactions can be manipulated to target cancer cells lying dormant in niches of bones, and how cancer cells use ‘immune cloaking’ to stay undetected.

“The vision of the centre is to implement radical new imaging technologies to investigate and manipulate the cancer–immune cell interactions,” Prof Phan said. “Thanks to our extensive clinical connections, we plan to progress any new discoveries to clinical trials as quickly as possible.”

Image credit: ©iStockphoto.com/Eraxion

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