Human Tumor Atlas Network: Constructing 3D Maps of Tumors Could Advance Cancer Treatments

    By Kathleen Berger

    Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis received a $9 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study the life histories of breast and pancreatic cancers. It’s part of the Human Tumor Atlas Network, a large-scale effort to understand the life span of tumors, including how normal cells become cancerous; how the cancer evolves in response to treatment; and what changes must occur for the tumor to become resistant to therapy and spread.

    The project is using advanced technologies to study individual cells. The study involves 3D mapping of tumors and tumor microenvironments for analysis of how the maps change over time.

    “We will understand what’s going on in every single cell,” said principal investigator Li Ding, PhD, an associate professor of medicine at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

    Samuel Achilefu, PhD, the Michel M. Ter-Pogossian Professor of Radiology, is one of three co-principal investigators. Achilefu is using imaging as a tool to help the team select tissue samples for the construction of the atlas.

    Achilefu explained the objective of the maps. He said, “So you can see how cells interact with each other in a three-dimensional matrix.”

    With 3D mapping, they hope to can gain new insight by studying the disease progression and responses to treatments in up to 300 breast cancer patients and 300 pancreatic cancer patients.

    In order to create the maps for the Human Tumor Atlas Network, Ding uses detailed genomic analysis to characterize the cells through single-cell sequencing. The ability to sequence single cells in a tumor allows researchers to identify which portion of the tumor may survive initial therapy and continue to grow despite aggressive treatments.

    The process provides the opportunity for scientists to identify immune cells. Single cell sequencing of the cancer microenvironment tells scientists how the patient’s immune system is responding to the tumor invasion.

    Ding explained, “We can bring them back together knowing the genetic alterations in each cell and how they are positioned in relation to each other.”

    Researchers will analyze how the maps change over time. By studying the disease progression, Ding said scientists could help develop better treatment options for future cancer patients with similar cancer cells and similar microenvironments.