Creating a 'Google Earth' for Cancer

Key Points

  • Cancer Research UK's Grand Challenge is creating a 3D chemical map of tumors from the outside down to the molecular level including chemical activity
  • Images are being produced from thousands of tumor samples
  • So far, they've mapped bowel, pancreatic, breast and glioblastoma tumors, and will continue to add to this
  • Understanding what’s going on within cells of tumors will allow researchers to find better ways to treat them

As part of Cancer Research UK's Grand Challenge program, scientists from the National Physical Laboratory (NPL, the UK's National Measurement Institute), have started measuring and mapping cancer.

Drawing the Map of Cancer

Check out the video about the Grand Challenge cancer mapping project.



The project is still getting up and running, it's a huge task going through thousands of samples, but the initial results are exciting.  No other project like this has been undertaken, and the potential to help researchers find better therapies is tremendous.

3 Stages of Mapping the Tumors

The group has created 3 stages of their 3D chemical map of cancer: the 'City View' of the google map comparison details the surface of the tumor, the 'Street View' goes a bit deeper and identifies various molecules inside the tumor cells, and deeper still, they go 'Inside the House' to show specific molecules and their chemical activity using radioactive flags.

High Tech Details

Using mass spectrometers allows them to see all of the molecules inside the tumor cell together differentiating by molecular weight.  This provides greater detail than looking at these same samples under a microscope, and offers incredible detail as they move from the surface to deep inside individual cells.

Putting it all together

Now, they are putting all of those images together, creating a detailed map of different types of cancer.   Given the number of images, this is a monumental task.  So far, they've started mapping bowel, pancreatic, breast and glioblastoma (a type of brain tumor), using tissue samples donated from patients after surgery.

Learn more about Cancer Research UK's Grand Challenge.

  • Research