Cartographers of Cancer

Meet the researchers using mass spectrometry imaging to plot a molecular map of malignancy.

July 2017

From Ptolemy to Google Maps, humans have been driven to record the landscape around them. By committing our world to paper, we can understand it, order it, and maybe even control it. A blank on a map is intriguing, but unnerving; medieval mapmakers, faced with unknown territories, filled them with ferocious monsters and deadly storms. These mythical beasts were vanquished as intrepid explorers charted the wilderness, filling in the gaps in our knowledge.

Can a new kind of cartography help us face down another terror? Cancer is much better understood than it was 50, or even five years ago, but for the millions of people diagnosed with cancer every year – and the doctors who treat them – there are still many troubling uncertainties. Have we caught it in time? Will it spread? What is the best course of treatment?

An ambitious five-year project led by the UK’s National Physical Laboratory (NPL) will record the most detailed map yet of the molecular landscape of a tumor. By combining new and existing mass spectrometry imaging techniques, the multidisciplinary team will create a “Google Earth view of cancer” – from whole-tumor down to subcellular level – with the hope of charting a course towards new options for prevention, diagnosis and treatment.

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