Tag Archives: Cancer

Hyperspectral Cell Imaging: A New Possible Gadget to Combat Cancer

As medical technology make advances and quality of life improves, it has become increasingly common for us to know of someone who has experienced cancer. But if our way of life today is better than it was fifty years ago, why do we hear more about cancer now than before?

To understand why, we should first understand what cancer is and a bit about our bodies. Inside our bodies we have trillions of cells, and every day billions of them die and get replaced through mitosis (a process that splits one cell into two identical cells). Due to the number of times that cells go through mitosis, it’s almost impossible to avoid making a mutation – a mistake in copying (think about your own repetitive experiences). Of course, the body has mechanisms to fix the mutations, and most mutations are harmless anyway, but sometimes the mechanism will miss one. Eventually, over a long enough period of time, the body will miss a mutation that is capable of causing a lethal form of cancer.

So, we learned that if we live long enough, we can’t escape cancer but what is it? Cancer is a general term for more specific diseases, but we just call them cancer because they share a common similarity. Normal cells will go through a death-rebirth cycle, but cancer cells are dysfunctional cells that don’t have the death signal. Instead, the cancer cells just keep dividing, taking away nutrients from the surrounding functioning cells. When a tumour (large lump of cancer cells) form, cancer can also metastasize. This is when part of the tumour breaks off and travels to another part of the body, forming a new cancer site. Cancer is dangerous because if there are not enough functioning cells, the result can be fatal.

Why has cancer become so prominent? We mentioned earlier that we increase our chance of developing cancer over time; cancer is a function of age. Well, fifty years ago, people were more likely to die at younger ages due to injury or other diseases. With new medical advances we have increased our average life span, and have thus increased our chance of developing cancer.

Although researchers have been working towards a cure for cancer, there has been no definitive success yet. However, Dr. Martial Guillaud, a senior cancer researcher at the BC Cancer Research Centre, and his team have just made a strong contribution to cancer research. They have developed a new imaging technique called Hyperspectral Imaging technique that will give medical practitioners accurate information in a short time frame. One benefit to the new imaging technique is that it can predict whether or not a patient will respond to immunotherapy – a treatment that uses your own body to fight against cancer. To gain a better understanding of the research take a look at our video describing the technology and demonstrating the imaging analysis, as well as a listen to our podcast highlighting how the imaging system is supposed to help doctors.


Podcast sound track from CCCM Labs.

Group 3: Simrat Chahal, Cindy San, Eurwin Szeto, Justin Wong


The Science of Aging: Can we live FOREVER?

Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China who built the great wall of china desperately sought the elixir of immortality later in his life. As he grew older, he was terrified by the fear of death and was obsessed with the fabled elixir of youth. Unfortunately, he failed to find the elixir and died by mercury poisoning believing that mercury has the power of reversing the aging process. Now, more than 2000 years have passed since he died. The progress of science has made remarkable changes in our mode of living. Can scientists find the legendary elixir? If it cannot be found in nature, can we create the magical elixir ourselves?

The fabled elixir of life lets us live forever (Source: Innovation Toronto, click the image to visit the website)

What is aging?

We know intuitively what aging means, but what does it mean in the scientific term and how can we define ‘aging’? Scientists define aging as the intrinsic physiological process that declines body function and causes an increase in death rate. The mechanisms of aging are still not fully understood due to its complexity but scientists have recently made advances in this area. First, scientists have hypothesized the reasons why we age. In 1990, there was an effort to categorize 300 theories of aging by Zhores Medvedev and one of the main reasons is that cells can’t divide forever.


The Hayflick limit

In a laboratory in Philadephia, a young scientist Leonard Hayflick found out that our cells have a finite number of times – 40 to 60 times – to undergo cell division before they die and stop functioning. Once we run out of healthy and functioning cells in organs, we die. This means that we all have a biological clock that tells us when to die from the moment we are born. Why does this occur? Scientists believe that shortening of the telomeres accounts for this phenomenon. Telomeres protect DNA by acting as caps which prevent the chromosomes from deterioration. Telomeres are at the end of the chromosomes. As cells undergo cell division, telomere length gets shorter and shorter. When the cells run out of telomeres, DNA strands become susceptible to damage and this leads to cell death.

The Hayflick limit of a normal human cell. Cells can no longer divide at some point. (Source: The Bio Regulator Company, click the image to visit the website)

Not everything dies by aging

Does this mean that every living thing will die by aging? Not really. For example, cancer cells are biologically immortal under ideal conditions – which is not very good news for us. How about in living organisms? It turns out that some animals and plants are biologically immortal and do not die by aging. Hydra – a small, fresh-water invertebrate – is one of the organisms that does not age. In 1998, Martinez found out that Hydras do not exhibit evidence of aging. More recently scientists working at a biotech company founded by Google have discovered that naked mole rats defy the definition of aging; their death rates do not increase with age. So, by the same physiological mechanisms which hydras and naked mole rats use, can we live longer?

Hydra, an aquatic animal, is biologically immortal. (Source: Wiktionary, click the image to visit the website)



Anti-aging drugs?

Unfortunately, we are neither hydra nor naked rat mole. Physiological systems of the human body are much more complicated. So, we can not exploit their physiological mechanisms. What if we can extend our telomeres and let cells divide more times? Wouldn’t we be able to live longer? The answer is a half yes. Telomerase is an enzyme that can fix and extend telomeres at the end of DNA strands. It is like a small machine that resets our biological clock. Telomerase can be found in some types of cells in our bodies – especially stem cell. It seems like a no brainer. Let’s get some telomerase and put it in a pill. Well, the problem is that’s what cancer cells do. That’s why cancer cells are biologically immortal. So, unless you want to get cancer, don’t put that extra telomerase in your body. According to Elizabeth Blackburn, nudging up telomerase could decrease aging effects, but it could also increase the risks of certain and rather nasty cancers. She mentioned that there are many websites marketing drugs saying that they can extend telomere, but the problem is those drugs could nudge up the risks of cancers. Here is a major dilemma, cancer or aging?

(Video – Ted: The science of cells that never get old  by Elizabeth Blackburn)


So, there is no clear solution to aging yet. However, a journey of finding the elixir of immortality continues. Scientists keep on pouring tremendous efforts to understand aging and how to resolve the riddle of the true antiaging drug. Instead of making the drug, there could be other ways to approach the immortality. Netcome, a neuroscience startup that seeks to back up the human brain on the computer server. Biolife4D, a biotech company in Illinois, United States is trying to build human organs with stem cell technology and 3D bioprinting technology. Maybe in the near future, we will figure out an answer to the immortality.

Uploading the human brain to the computer. (Source: Live Science, click the image to visit the website)