Cancer Research in 3D – CleanTechnica

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In cancer research, seeing is believing. Before they can diagnose or treat cancer, researchers and doctors need to have a clear understanding of what’s happening at a microscopic level. While existing technology allows us to see things the naked eye can’t, a team of researchers at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) is working to standardize a process for staining and seeing cancer in a whole new perspective — in 3D (three dimensions).

The green lines on this cancer spheroid show a nanobody, a specific part of an antibody, that is known to turn on a cancer-creating gene. A work of art, “Three-Dimensional Breast Cancer Spheroids,” is on display at the American Museum of Science & Energy. Image courtesy of Debjani Pal, Oak Ridge National Laboratory

A cancer spheroid, as shown in this beautiful image, is a densely packed clump of tumor cells. Normally, a microscopic view of this clump would yield only a two-dimensional picture. Instead, Debjani Pal, a research and development associate at ORNL, is developing a way to see the clump in its entirety. First, she constructed breast cancer cell tissue in a special microplate. This microplate allowed her to view it in 3D. She then treated the sample with a combination of chemicals and dyes, which reacted with the cells and created the brilliant colors seen in the photo. Pal then used a confocal microscope to snap Z-stack images. This type of photography combines several images taken slice by slice over a set spatial interval. Lastly, she compiled these images into a single 3D image that provides a glimpse into the inner workings of this cancer spheroid.

This 3D image of breast cancer tissue shows a nanobody, a specific part of an antibody. This nanobody is known to identify a breast cancer-creating receptor, called HER2. Scientists are interested in this receptor because it is overexpressed in certain types of breast cancer. Consequently, Pal believes that it can be used to deliver therapeutics directly to cancer cells. Because radiation can harm healthy cells, radiotherapy’s effectiveness is currently limited. But cancer cells often have specific surface receptors. Therefore, some cancer treatments have the potential to be more precise.

Since joining ORNL, Pal’s research has been dedicated to defining the molecular mechanism of cancer progression and developing radiolabeled nanotechnology-based tools to fight cancer. She’s particularly interested in better understanding the connection between biological medicines, like vaccines and monoclonal antibodies, and their effect on a cancer cell’s growth.


The Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit the Office of Science website.

Ashleigh Papp ( is a science writer and multimedia producer in the Office of Science.

Courtesy of U.S. DOE.

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