In researching diseases such as cancer and multiple sclerosis, immunologists mostly have had to observe static immune cells in laboratories—until now. Alex Huang, a pediatric oncologist with the Department of Pediatrics at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, is using advanced laser technology and computer software to capture 3-D, high definition movies of cell interaction in real time.
According to Huang, Case Western Reserve is one of only a handful of institutions worldwide conducting this kind of research.
"One thing that baffles immunologists is how cells behave in live patients compared to Petri dishes in the laboratory," he said. "If we understand how our immune system works, we can find new strategies to fight diseases such as multiple sclerosis and cancer."
Huang came to the university from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) where he received funding from the Cancer Research Institute (CRI) for postdoctoral training. In his first year at Case Western Reserve, he has received two grants totaling nearly half a million dollars to further his studies.
He has received the Cancer Research Institute Investigator Award of $200,000 over four years, and the Dana Foundation recently awarded Huang $200,000 in funding over three years for his research in multiple sclerosis.
The CRI grant will support Huang's study of how the presence of tumors affects the immune system; with the second grant from the Dana Foundation, he will study how certain immune cells influence cells in the brain to cause diseases such as multiple sclerosis. That's where the computer-enhanced movies featuring cells inside living tissues that Huang and his team capture come in. They track migration of individual immune cells in mice by using an advanced laser technique called intravital 2-photon laser scanning microscopy. His team then creates 3-D dynamic movies of the images. The cells are designated with multiple, vibrant colors, each one representing a population the group wants to study.
By analyzing the behavior of individual groups of immune cells under various experimental conditions, the researchers hope to uncover important environmental and chemical signals these cells use to communicate with one another to exert their proper function. With the computer animation system, he and fellow researchers can observe these interactions in high definition resolution.
"This is a major breakthrough, because prior to this, most of the research had to be conducted via either static high resolution pictures of cells in tissues or dynamic movies of cells isolated from the body," he explained. "With intravital 2-photon microscopy, we can now see dynamic and high resolution movies of cells while they are in the living body."
Huang and his team have high hopes that this new laser scanning technology may one day find its way into the clinical arena. Huang said clinicians potentially may be able to use this kind of technology to detect individual tumor cells and eliminate them without harming surrounding tissues.
"This is a testament to what Case is trying to do—be at the forefront of scientific discovery," Huang said.
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