Casting light in the dark spaces of cancer

Professor Paul Timpson, Professor Tri Phan and Dr Steve Lee (photo supplied)
16 November 2020

Immunotherapy has greatly advanced cancer treatment over the past four decades and is highly effective for some cancer patients by helping patient’s immune systems fight cancer.

However, immunotherapy for patients affected by breast, prostate and pancreatic cancer, the treatment is rarely effective.

A $3M grant from the Australian Cancer Research Foundation (ACRF) aims to overcome this by establishing a custom-built microscopy centre to image the ‘dark space’ of cancer-immune interactions.

The ACRF Intravital Imaging of Niches for Cancer Immune Therapy (INCITe) Centre will house two microscopes designed by researchers at the Australian National University (ANU) and will enable new advances in cancer research.

“Cancers hide from the immune system in highly complex and dynamic environments that can’t be visualised by conventional microscopes,” says Chief Investigator Professor Tri Phan (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. Our goal is to make a promising cancer therapy even more effective for patients,” says Professor Phan.

INCITe will be based at Sydney's Garvan Institute of Medical Research and will be home to the two custom microscopes designed by a team at John Curtin School of Medical Research (JCSMR) led by Chief Investigator, Dr Steve Lee of the Australian National University.

Dr Lee says “These microscopes enable researchers to see immune cells and molecules at the cancer site move and interact in real time – below the surface of tumours and deep inside tissues.”

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, ANU adaptive optics technology called Raster Adaptive Optics and a minimally invasive microendoscope.

“My team combines raster adaptive optics (RAO) with ANU-custom built microendoscope technologies to reveal, for the first time, the ‘unknown’ and brighten up the dark spaces of biological cells that has been hidden deep underneath living tissue” says Dr Lee.

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.

Dr Steve Lee says, “there are many aspects here that resembles astronomy adaptive optics which are used to reveal the hidden stars at far away depth of galaxy.”

“We have developed adaptive optics to reveal dormant cancer cells in dark spaces in living tissue.”

Collaborators from 23 research labs from across Australia will access the technology via 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.

The INCITe Centre, scheduled to launch next year, unites an interdisciplinary team of world-class experts in cancer biology, physics and engineering at the Garvan Institute, the Australian National University, University of Technology Sydney, QIMR Berghofer, Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research, the Centre for Cancer Biology and Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute.