Five Fascinating Approaches to Cancer Science

By Christina Pernambuco-Holsten,

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Stained pathology slides of a patient’s tumor (right) and of an organoid made from that tumor (left).

From tropical plants and 3-D snapshots of worms to tiny particles that light up tumors, here’s a glimpse at some of the fascinating work MSK researchers pursued in 2014 as part of our quest to advance cancer science.

This has been a busy year for scientists at Memorial Sloan Kettering. Our dedicated researchers have worked ceaselessly on a huge variety of approaches to advance cancer science and to bring those innovations into practice for patients as quickly as possible. Here’s a snapshot of some of the fascinating work they did in the last 12 months.

Making Cancer Cells Normal

Conventional cancer treatment involves getting rid of cancer cells through surgery, radiation, or drug therapy. But what if there were a way to change cancer cells back into normal ones instead of killing them? That’s exactly the approach hematologist Eytan Stein and colleagues took to treating certain types of leukemia and other blood diseases such as myelodysplastic syndromes. A drug they’re pursuing blocks the mutant enzymes that prevent healthy bone marrow cells from developing. “This approach is truly transformative,” Dr. Stein said. “Both because it changes the way we look at cancer and because it literally transforms cells.” Read the full story.

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Leaving No Cancer Cells Behind

In the operating room, radiologist Michelle Bradbury led work to use an innovative optical nanoparticle probe in an effort to ensure that no stray cancer cells remain after surgery. The nanoparticles, which are loaded with fluorescent dye as well as a molecule that causes them to bind to the surface of tumor cells, are injected during the operation to remove the cancer. Then doctors use a special handheld camera that causes the fluorescent dye to light up the nanoparticles and show where they’ve traveled. “We are trying to push the optical properties and brightness of the particles to the point that we could detect even a single cancer cell,” said Dr. Bradbury. The technology is currently being used in patients with melanoma of the head and neck. Watch a video about the probe.

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Creating New Cancer Models

Medical oncologist Yu Chen explored a promising new tool called an organoid for testing the efficacy of cancer treatments. The study involved isolating tumor cells taken from seven patients with metastatic prostate cancer and then growing them in the laboratory. Each of the resulting organoids was molecularly identical to the patient’s cancer from which it originated. Eventually, Dr. Chen explained, they may be able to develop organoids derived from every patient’s tumor, allowing doctors to test a potential therapy on the organoid before giving it to the patient for a truly personalized and optimized approach to treatment. Read the full story.

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Devising a Nematode Playbook

How can worm development contribute to cancer research? Computational biologist Zhirong Bao and his team studied a worm called a nematode to answer that question. Its simple anatomy and pattern of development make it the perfect model for testing new imaging tools created in Dr. Bao’s lab that track the development of cells and their genes in a series of high-definition 3-D snapshots. The resulting image data provided the information necessary to complete a veritable biological playbook detailing how a particular tissue or organ develops. Ultimately Dr. Bao hopes the technology can be used to speed the study of the intricate cellular interactions that cause tumors to grow and spread. Watch a nematode develop.

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Growing Plant Therapy

For nearly 40 years, MYC has been one of the most well-studied yet perplexing of the so-called oncogenes — that is until this year, when a team of MSK researchers discovered that a compound found in the tropical plant Aglaia foveolata could block MYC’s cancer-causing activity. The compound, Silvestrol, destroyed leukemia and lymphoma cells as well as some solid tumors in animal models. Silvestrol causes cancer cells to die because the cells are dependent on the proteins encoded by MYC. “Blocking the production of key cancer genes is a completely new way of treating cancer. That is exciting, and it also means we have a lot to learn,” said senior author Hans Guido-Wendel. Read the full story.

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It's amazing to see the continual advances in medicine.

Is MSKCC involved in the testing of Medical Marijuana (CBD rich hemp-oil, low in THC) ?

Dear Corinne, we are not currently conducting clinical trials involving the use of medical marijuana. Thank you for your comment.

Is there a test to determine where a cancer is located? If there is a test what hospitals offer this test and their location.

Emily, thank you for your comment. There is no single test to determine where a cancer is located. If a patient has symptoms related to a specific area of the body, imaging tests can be used to pinpoint the location of a tumor. But cancer does not always cause symptoms, and some cancers, such as blood cancers, are not located in just one part of the body.

You can learn more about cancer symptoms at this link:

In addition, you also can call the National Cancer Institute’s Cancer Information Service at 800-4CANCER (800-422-6237) to learn about tests in general. To learn more about the CIS, including Live Chat help and how to send them an email message, go to

Do you use proton therapy for treatment?

John, thank you for reaching out. Yes, MSK now offers proton therapy as a treatment for many types of cancers. You can contact our Physician Referral Service at 800-525-2225 to learn about treatment for a specific cancer.

Marijuana oil is very effective against cancer. It is now being used in Europe. When can we expect its use at the institution?

Mary, thank you for your comment. We often receive questions about marijuana or cannabis oil. Gary Deng of MSK's Integrative Medicine Service offers this statement (April 2015):

“There are a few laboratory studies and a case report of cannabis oil suggesting it may have anti-cancer activity. But there is no good clinical data supporting its efficacy as cancer treatment. We kept track of a few patients who used it on their own. None of them had tumor shrinkage. Patient would miss an opportunity for treatment if they rely only on cannabis oil as an anti-cancer agent. It is also not without side effects. Its use is not advisable.”

In addition, the American Cancer Society says: “As of 2014, there are reports online suggesting that marijuana oil or “hemp” oil can cure cancer, as well as diabetes, ulcers, arthritis, migraines, insomnia, infections, and many other diseases. These claims are largely unsupportable. Relying on marijuana alone as treatment while avoiding or delaying conventional medical care for cancer may have serious health consequences.”

My mother is currently being treated at MSK in NY where medicinal marijuana has now become legal. Can the drs treating her give her a cannibus oil prescription because under the new law she is eligable? This would be along with her chemo treatments to help with chemo side effects. Not to use as a "cure" for cancer.

Dear Evelyn, we are sorry to hear that your mother is struggling with side effects. We suggest that you follow up with her oncologist to discuss how best to manage the specific side effects she is experiencing. Thank you for reaching out to us.

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