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1 December 2006

Lighting Up Cancer Cells

Dr. Nicole Marmé of the Institute of Physical Chemistry, University of Heidelberg and Dr. Jens-Peter Knemeyer of the Functional Genome Analysis Department of the German Cancer Research Centre are using new methods for earlier detection of dangerous illnesses

Might we be able to tell, just by looking through the microscope, whether single cancer cells are coursing through the body? In the none too distant future, early detection of killer diseases like cancer may become a reality. Hopefully, the combination of two modern key technologies — chip technology and single-molecule fluorescence spectroscopy — will soon enable scientists to fine-hone methods for identifying malignant cells, dangerous viruses or pathologically altered genetic material and thus to further improve recovery prospects.

"We want to link up single-molecule fluorescence spectroscopy with conventional chip technology, which has long been a factor in medicine and biology," says chemist Dr. Jens-Peter Knemeyer of the Functional Genome Analysis Department of the German Cancer Research Centre (DKFZ) in Heidelberg. Together with Dr. Nicole Marmé, chemist at Heidelberg University's Institute of Physical Chemistry, he has organised a symposium on the subject.

Fluorescent cell scrutiny

Following successful therapy for malignant tumours, cancer cells left in the body are capable of forming tumours at other sites, sometimes many years after the initial event. Highly sensitive techniques could conceivably identify these vagabond cells at an early stage, so that effective measures could be undertaken to stop them spreading through the body.

Here single-molecule fluorescence spectroscopy has the potential to bring about a dramatic improvement in modern analytic methods. It is a technique that can be used not only detect single cancer cells in the blood on the basis of their markers, but also to trace the infection pathway of a dye-stained HI virus or to identify pathogens that no longer respond to a given antibiotic. Frequently, tiny changes to the genomes of bacteria are sufficient to trigger resistance to the antibiotics administered. The earlier resistance of this kind is detected, the quicker alternative medication can be used.

The Heidelberg research team headed by Dr. Knemeyer and Dr. Marmé has succeeded in detecting a mutation of this kind. But what single-molecule fluorescence spectroscopy has been unable to do so far is to investigate several thousand molecules in parallel. This is where chip technology comes in. It enables scientists to test a blood sample for 100,000 different molecules. Combining these two technologies, the researchers believe, would be one way of detecting changes at the molecular level even earlier than before.

Ingeborg Bördlein

Please address any inquiries to:
Dr. Michael Schwarz
Press Officer of the University of Heidelberg
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 54317

Irene Thewalt
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 542317

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