A new method for analysing biological samples based on their chemical makeup is set to transform the way medical scientists examine diseased tissue. When tests are carried out on a patient's tissue today, such as to look for cancer, the test has to be interpreted by a histology specialist, and can take weeks to obtain a full result.
Mass spectrometry imaging (MSI) uses technologies that reveal how hundreds or thousands of chemical components are distributed in a tissue sample. Scientists have proposed using MSI to identify tissue types for many years, but until now, no method has been devised to apply such technology to any type of tissue.
In this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers at Imperial College London have outlined a recipe for processing MSI data and building a database of tissue types.
In MSI, a beam moves across the surface of a sample, producing a pixelated image. Each pixel contains data on thousands of chemicals present in that part of the sample. By analysing many samples and comparing them to the results of traditional histological analysis, a computer can learn to identify different types of tissue.
A single test taking a few hours can provide much more detailed information than standard histological tests, for example showing not just if a tissue is cancerous, what the type and sub-type of cancer, which can be important for choosing the best treatment. The technology can also be applied in research to offer new insights into cancer biology.
Dr. Kirill Veselkov, corresponding author of the study from the Department of Surgery and Cancer at Imperial College London, said: "MSI is an extremely promising technology, but the analysis required to provide information that doctors or scientists can interpret easily is very complex. This work overcomes some of the obstacles to translating MSI's potential into the clinic. It's the first step towards creating the next generation of fully automated histological analysis."
Dr. Zoltan Takats, from the Department of Surgery and Cancer at Imperial College London, said: "This technology can change the fundamental paradigm of histology. Instead of defining tissue types by their structure, we can define them by their chemical composition. This method is independent of the user – it's based on numerical data, rather than a specialist's eyes – and it can tell you much more in one test than histology can show in many tests."
Professor Jeremy Nicholson, Head of the Department of Surgery and Cancer at Imperial College London, said: "There have been relatively few major changes in the way we study tissue sample pathology since the late 19th century, when staining techniques were used to show tissue structure. Such staining methods are still the mainstay of hospital histopathology; they have become much more sophisticated but they are slow and expensive to do and require considerable expertise to interpret.
"Multivariate chemical imaging that can sense abnormal tissue chemistry in one clean sweep offers a transformative opportunity in terms of diagnostic range, speed and cost, which is likely to impact on future pathology services and to improve patient safety."
The technology will also be useful in drug development. To study where a new drug is absorbed in the body, pharmaceutical scientists attach a radioactive label to the drug molecule, then look at where the radiation can be detected in a laboratory animal. If the label is detached when the drug is processed in the body, it is impossible to determine how and where the drug has been metabolised. MSI would allow researchers to look for the drug and any metabolic products in the body, without using radioactive labels.
The research was funded by Imperial College London's Junior Research Fellowship scheme, awarded to Dr. Kirill A. Veselkov; the National Institute for Health Research Imperial Biomedical Research Centre and the European Research Council.
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Notes to Editors
1. Reference: K.A. Veselkov et al. 'Chemo-informatic strategy for imaging mass spectrometry based hyper-spectral profiling of lipid signatures in colorectal cancer.' PNAS, 2014. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1310524111
2. About Imperial College London
Consistently rated amongst the world's best universities, Imperial College London is a science-based institution with a reputation for excellence in teaching and research that attracts 14,000 students and 6,000 staff of the highest international quality. Innovative research at the College explores the interface between science, medicine, engineering and business, delivering practical solutions that improve quality of life and the environment - underpinned by a dynamic enterprise culture.
Since its foundation in 1907, Imperial's contributions to society have included the discovery of penicillin, the development of holography and the foundations of fibre optics. This commitment to the application of research for the benefit of all continues today, with current focuses including interdisciplinary collaborations to improve global health, tackle climate change, develop sustainable sources of energy and address security challenges.
In 2007, Imperial College London and Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust formed the UK's first Academic Health Science Centre. This unique partnership aims to improve the quality of life of patients and populations by taking new discoveries and translating them into new therapies as quickly as possible.
3. About the NIHR
The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) is funded by the Department of Health to improve the health and wealth of the nation through research. Since its establishment in April 2006, the NIHR has transformed research in the NHS. It has increased the volume of applied health research for the benefit of patients and the public, driven faster translation of basic science discoveries into tangible benefits for patients and the economy, and developed and supported the people who conduct and contribute to applied health research. The NIHR plays a key role in the Government's strategy for economic growth, attracting investment by the life-sciences industries through its world-class infrastructure for health research. Together, the NIHR people, programmes, centres of excellence and systems represent the most integrated health research system in the world. For further information, visit the NIHR website.
4. About NIHR Biomedical Research Centres
NIHR Biomedical Research Centres support research across a wide range of disease areas. These Centres are the most outstanding NHS/University research partnerships in the country; leaders in scientific translation and early adopters of new insights in technologies, techniques and treatments for improving health. To ensure they are able to succeed, the NIHR BRCs receive substantial levels of sustained funding. NIHR BRC funding supports the NHS infrastructure to create an environment where scientific endeavour can thrive, attracting the foremost talent and producing world-class outputs.
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