New Microscopy Technique Could Reveal Mechanisms of Cancer

Typically when asked about the role of nanotechnology in treating cancer, people refer to nanoparticle-based drug delivery systems (DDS) that target cancer cells. While these DDS treatments certainly add a new weapon to the arsenal used in the killing of cancer cells, they are still, as George Whitesides has said, our cells. So, killing cancer cells with more targeted poisons remains somewhat problematic.

In some ways a more hopeful, albeit a less immediate, method of addressing cancer with nanotechnology, is the use of microscopy tools for both early detection and unraveling the mechanisms by which cancer develops in us.

It is in the latter case that Nongjian (N.J.) Tao and his fellow researchers at the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University have developed a method for improving the spatial information to the microscopy technique known as electrochemical impedance spectroscopy (EIS).

The work that went into developing this technique was published in the journal Nature ChemistryIt seems the researchers have created a hybrid technique that combines EIS with a technique based on surface plasmon resonance (SPR).

The hybrid technique is being dubbed electrochemical impedance microscopy (EIM) and differs from traditional EIS in that it does not measure current but instead employs the plasmon resonance to show the changes in impedance optically.

This development means that it is now “possible to study individual cells, but also resolve subcellular structures and processes without labels, and with excellent detection sensitivity (~2 pS).”

What these characteristics of the new technique enable is made clear in the video below in which researchers at Arizona State University now have the tools they need to look at the chemical modifications of the proteins that wrap up DNA up to control gene expression.

“Lots of people have gene defects that could lead to cancer but few actually get cancer,” explains Dr. Stuart Lindsay, Director, Center for Single Molecule Biophysics, at the Biodesign Institute at ASU. “Cancer is not a disease based on gene defects per se, but rather based on the chemical factors that control gene expression and those are the factors that we want to probe.”




IEEE Spectrum’s nanotechnology blog, featuring news and analysis about the development, applications, and future of science and technology at the nanoscale.

Dexter Johnson
Madrid, Spain
Rachel Courtland
Associate Editor, IEEE Spectrum
New York, NY