These scientists are using fluorescent jellyfish proteins to turn cancer cells into artwork

Roswell Park cancer scientistsRoswell Park Cancer InstituteDr. Heinz Baumann, left, and Dr. Kenneth Gross use jellyfish proteins to make cancer cells fluorescent.

Researchers have found a way to turn an ugly disease into beautiful artwork.

Scientists at Roswell Park Cancer Institute, the world’s oldest cancer research center, are injecting fluorescent jellyfish proteins into cancer cells and tumours, and the results have created images so stunning that they’re giving others the chance to see them.

While the microphotography is beautiful, it also serves a purpose: the fluorescent cells help Drs. Heinz Baumann and Kenneth Gross colour-code cancer cells and track how they behave over time.

Here’s how it works.

The doctors now use the technology like a tracking device.

Roswell Park Cancer Institute

Baumann and Gross will inject a colour, like yellow, into a cell and monitor it over time. They can see how tumours progress, the behaviour of tumour cells and trace the genetic origin of tumours.

'I am always trying to emphasise that these images are more than just decoration,' Baumann said. 'What we use it for is a tool to follow the biology of cancers. The colours you see are the markers or the tracers.'

After tumours are colour-coded, the doctors perform gene sequencing to understand what genes might be contributing to a tumour cell becoming cancerous.

Roswell Park Cancer Institute

The doctors try to understand which genes are broken in a sequence and what might be making cancer rates higher. They also study cancerous cells against non-cancerous cells to understand what makes them different.

The artwork has helped the doctors better explain how their research works.

Roswell Park Cancer Institute

'I have talked to layman, like my family, and they ask me all the time, 'what are you doing at work?'' Gross said. 'I find that being able to show them with these coloured pictures, I can explain my work in a very graphic way to them where they can immediately see the significance of the statements that I'm making. A picture is worth 1,000 words.'

Now, anyone who visits the hospital can see the work lit up throughout the hallways.

Roswell Park Cancer Institute
The images are displayed in light boxes at the hospital.

Gross and Baumann's images are part of a collection of 200 works of art hanging in the hospital's new clinical sciences center, so patients and doctors can view them while walking the hallways.

But these images have real implications: they give the doctors a better idea of what makes some cells turn into dangerous tumours -- meaning that the research could help find a cure for cancer.

Roswell Park Cancer Institute

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