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Unique atomic fingerprint of cancer cells discovered in hydrogen atoms

Scientists at the University of Colorado Boulder and Princeton University have used a unique tool to detect the tell-tale signs of cancer – and it’s all about tiny atoms. In this research, medicine and Earth science have collided, revealing that the fingerprint of cancer cells looks different from healthy tissue.

This could open up exciting possibilities in our fight against this complex disease, including new ways to understand cancer behavior and potentially even detect it earlier.

Hydrogen atoms

The key to this discovery lies in hydrogen, one of the most fundamental elements in the universe. Hydrogen exists in two naturally occurring forms called isotopes: the common hydrogen and a slightly heavier version known as deuterium.

Though less abundant, deuterium plays a crucial role in scientific investigations. By analyzing the varying ratios of these hydrogen isotopes, scientists gain valuable insights into a wide range of phenomena, including the Earth’s past climates and complex biological processes.

Inspired by the diverse applications of isotope analysis, a team led by CU Boulder geochemist Ashley Maloney explored a novel idea: studying hydrogen isotopes may illuminate the inner workings of cells and potentially distinguish between healthy and diseased states.

The focus was on cancer, a disease characterized by uncontrolled cellular growth, and the unique ways in which cancer cells may use hydrogen.

Cancer turns metabolism upside down

Cells, the fundamental units of life, constantly require energy to carry out their functions. The primary method for generating this energy is cellular respiration, a process that utilizes oxygen to efficiently break down fuel sources like glucose.

However, certain cells – particularly rapidly dividing cancer cells – exhibit a remarkable metabolic flexibility. To sustain their uncontrolled growth, they can switch to a different energy-generating pathway called fermentation. Unlike respiration, fermentation does not require oxygen. This alternative pathway provides a quick energy boost but is less efficient overall.

Scientists have long been intrigued by the metabolic adaptations of cancer cells. Understanding how these shifts in energy production occur could offer valuable insights into the mechanisms driving cancer growth. This is where the research on hydrogen tracking comes in – it aims to uncover whether the metabolic changes characteristic of cancer leave a traceable signature at the atomic level.

Atomic fingerprints of cancer

To investigate their hypothesis, Maloney and her team conducted a series of experiments. They cultured yeast and mouse liver cells in a laboratory setting. These cell cultures included both healthy and cancerous samples.

The researchers specifically targeted fatty acids, which are essential building blocks within cells. Following this, they employed a technique to analyze the specific composition of hydrogen isotopes present within these fatty acids.

The results were indeed striking. “When we started the study, I thought, ‘Ooh, we have a chance to see something cool.’ It ended up creating a huge signal, which I didn’t expect,” said Maloney.

The analysis revealed a significant difference in the ratio of hydrogen isotopes between fermenting yeast cells, which mimicked rapid cancerous growth, and regular yeast cells.

The fermenting yeast cells exhibited a roughly 50% depletion of deuterium atoms compared to their healthy counterparts. This remarkable change suggested a potential cancer fingerprint at the atomic level, potentially linked to the altered metabolic state associated with cancerous or fast-growing cells.

Fingerprints for fight against cancer

“This study adds a whole new layer to medicine, giving us the chance to look at cancer at the atomic level,” said Maloney.

It’s crucial to remember that these findings represent the initial stages of a promising new line of research. While the results are undeniably exciting, further investigation is needed to fully understand the implications of this discovery.

The potential impact, however, is significant. If this distinctive atomic signal, linked to altered cellular metabolism, can be reliably detected through a simple blood test, it has the potential to revolutionize how we approach early cancer detection.

It could provide physicians with a valuable tool to identify potential abnormalities, prompting further investigation and ultimately leading to earlier diagnosis and treatment. “Your chances of survival are so much higher if you catch cancer early on,” said study co-author Sebastian Kopf.

Collaboration and inspiration

The genesis of this work underscores the power of cross-disciplinary collaboration. Maloney’s expertise in analyzing isotopes within algae, coupled with her father’s clinical experience as a dermatologist treating skin cancer, ignited an intriguing question: could the tools used to study natural systems provide insights into disease processes within the human body?

This exemplifies how diverse scientific fields can intersect, driving innovation and potentially leading to significant breakthroughs.

While further studies are essential to validate these initial findings, this discovery offers a promising avenue for understanding the complex mechanisms underlying cancer development. The potential applications extend beyond early detection; this research could contribute to designing new therapeutic strategies targeted at the unique metabolic vulnerabilities of cancer cells.

The team remains optimistic about the future, recognizing the far-reaching impact their work could have on countless lives touched by cancer. “Cancer, and other illnesses, are a huge theme in many people’s lives. I hope to see this area expand,” said Zhang.

The study is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


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