Research ArticlesCancer Imaging

Intravital Microscopy Through an Abdominal Imaging Window Reveals a Pre-Micrometastasis Stage During Liver Metastasis

Science Translational Medicine  31 Oct 2012:
Vol. 4, Issue 158, pp. 158ra145
DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.3004394

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Peering Into Cancer

Understanding what goes on inside the body, as it is happening, is an ongoing challenge in medical imaging. Conventional imaging methods are only “snapshots,” unable to truly capture biology in action or the progression of disease. In this study by Ritsma and colleagues, an abdominal imaging window (AIW) proves to be the answer, allowing the authors to visualize and quantify metastatic processes in real time, in vivo in mice.

The AIW consisted of a titanium ring with a glass coverslip, which could be tightly secured to the abdominal wall of a mouse. This window stayed in place for an average of 5 weeks, which is long enough to visualize many biological phenomena, including single-cell activity in the small intestine, spleen, pancreas, and kidney, as demonstrated by Ritsma et al. Although able to image many organs and cells, the authors chose to focus on tumor cell metastasis—specifically, the metastasis of mouse colorectal cancer C26 cells to the liver. By tracking fluorescently labeled C26 cells over the course of 2 weeks, the authors were able to confirm that the majority of metastatic growth was clonal (that is, from a single founder cell) rather than synergistic. The authors also noticed that the cancer cells had different phenotypic properties at different time points: At day 3, the cells were motile and diffuse in the liver tissue, whereas, at day 5, the cells stopped moving and were densely packed. The authors called this phenotypic shift a “pre-micrometastatic” state, followed by the “micrometastatic state.” Blocking cell migration in the pre-micrometastatic stage with a small-molecule inhibitor reduced cell growth and formation of subsequent micrometastases.

Ristma and coauthors have developed a powerful in vivo imaging tool to track biological events in real time. This will hopefully lend insight into many diseases that affect abdominal organs. Although their preliminary findings suggest a new target for pharmacological inhibition of cancer growth and migration, additional preclinical and clinical studies will be needed to follow up this pre-micrometastatic hypothesis and to further confirm its presence in humans.