A new Northwestern University-led study of human colon, pancreatic and lung cells is the first to report that cancer cells and their non-cancerous cell neighbors, although quite different under the microscope, share very similar structural abnormalities on the nanoscale level.
The findings, obtained using an optical technique that can detect features as small as 20 nanometers, validate the “field effect,” a biological phenomenon in which cells located some distance from a malignant or premalignant tumor undergo molecular and other kinds of abnormal changes.
The most striking findings were that these nanoscale alterations occurred at some distance from the tumor and, importantly, could be identified by assessing more easily accessible tissue, such as the cheek for lung cancer detection.
The partial wave spectroscopy (PWS) technique, once optimized, could be used to detect cell abnormalities early and help physicians assess who might be at risk for developing cancer. Like a pap smear of the cervix, a simple brushing of cells is all that is needed to get the specimen required for testing.
Using PWS, the researchers made another important discovery: the abnormalities found in the nanoarchitecture of the colon cells are the same abnormalities as those found in the pancreas and lung, illustrating commonality across three very different organs.
The results are published online by the journal Cancer Research.