Oncology Central

Creating virtual reality maps of tumours: interview with Greg Hannon


In an exclusive interview, Greg Hannon from Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute (UK), speaks to Oncology Central about his project to create virtual reality maps of tumors. The ground-breaking project has been selected by Cancer Research UK to receive £20 million over the next 6 years as part of its Grand Challenge awards; set up to revolutionize the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancer and help scientists tackle unanswered questions in cancer research.

Can you tell us about your career to date and your work at the CRUK Cambridge Institute?

I started off as a PhD student in Cleveland training in RNA biology and then moved to Cold Spring Harbor (NY, USA) 25 years ago, where I worked for 23 years on cell cycle control in cancer. That is where my interest in cancer started. As I transitioned to my own lab, also at Cold Spring Harbour, I maintained a dual interest and I was sucked in to the whole phenomenon of RNAi. I spent a lot of time working out mechanisms of RNAi, small, RNA biology, and microRNAs. I am still working on small RNAs that are a mechanism for defense of germline genomes.

We have always maintained our interest in cancer biology. A lot of the work that we did at Cold Spring Harbour was in collaboration with Scott Lowe, who is now at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (NY, USA). There was also always a third current running in the lab which was that of technology development. I left CSHL approximately 2 years ago to move to Cambridge (UK). I also have a small lab at New York at the New York Genome Center (USA).

In some ways the move to the Cancer Research UK (CRUK) Cambridge Institute (UK) and having new colleagues has bought all of these interests together in to the Grand Challenge where there is a huge amount of technology and development [1]. By conducting this project we hope to learn a lot about tumor biology and at the same time come at this from the perspectives of measuring RNA copy number and examining RNA localisation in cells along with taking measurements of protein etc.

You are currently the principal investigator for the Grand Challenge: Finding a way of mapping tumors at the molecular and cellular level. Could you tell us about the aims of this project?

The project was born out of my exposure a number of years ago to work done by neuroscientists at Cold Spring Harbour particularly Pavel Osten who has helped to develop fluorescent serial-block face imaging two-photon microscope (STPT). He was looking in a great deal of detail at structures within the brain where certain reporters become active. This made me think that we could do the same thing in cancer biology to start to understand the 3D arrangement of cells in tumors.

At that point it was a hobby project and not the primary focus of the lab i.e. we would go and work with Pavel for a bit just trying to get our tissues fixed and sectioned and imaged appropriately.

Then with the move and with an almost a perfect coalescense of a set of colleagues here, we began to get much more serious about it and to think about taking what was really primarily an imaging project and turn it into something that was much bigger. From this project we hoped to understand not only the orientation of tumor cells vs something simple such as the vasculature but the arrangement of all the cell types in a tumor, their locations and then to add some deep molecular characterization.

This could allow us to identify each cell type cell, understand the activity of its signaling pathways and understand how different cell types behave when in contact within neighboring cell types.

We started working towards this and then the Grand Challenge questions were released and it seemed like mapping tumors in 3D was really a perfect fit. The project allowed us to think even bigger and to assemble a team of collaborators not just in Cambridge but to pull individuals from all over the world. Our project includes researchers from Vancouver, Dublin, Boston, Zurich and Lausanne plus a core group of five investigators back here in Cambridge. Overall, we were able to think with using a breadth of technology and doing analyzes on a scale that was unthinkable in a way prior to CRUK conceiving this funding mechanism.

What imaging methods will you use to develop the 3D tumor maps?

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