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At first glance, they look like the most exquisite Murano glass, their ruby reds and royal blues shimmering as if lit by a Venetian sunrise. But these are human cancer cells, lung and breast and prostate and cervical and more. The images released this week by the National Cancer Institute as part of its “Cancer Close Up” project show the genesis of cancer cells and their migration through the body, the blood vessels they sprout to stay alive, and the molecular “skeletons” that help them spread.

The images are much more than pretty pictures, however. The photographic techniques that produced them are allowing scientists to understand how the interactions between cellular proteins and the cell nucleus allow cancer cells to invade far-flung tissue, for instance, and how certain molecules allow tumor cells to withstand chemotherapy. And they are a reminder of the countless patients such as Henrietta Lacks whose “HeLa” cervical cancer cells live on, contributing to progress against the disease long after it has claimed them.


  • Breast cancer cells overexpressing the enzyme Nek3 (red). This research provides the rationale for a targeted therapy against Nek3. National Cancer Institute/Massey Cancer Center at Virginia Commonwealth Univ.
  • Pancreatic cancer is associated with a vast desmoplastic reaction in which the connective tissue around the tumor thickens and scars.National Cancer Institute/Fox Chase Cancer Center
  • Pancreatic cancer cells (nuclei in blue) grow as a sphere encased in membranes (red). By growing cancer cells in the lab, researchers can study factors that promote and prevent the formation of deadly tumors.National Cancer Institute/USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center
  • Label-free stimulated Raman scattering imaging reveals the storage of cholesterol ester in lipid droplets (bright dots) in aggressive human prostate cancer.National Cancer Institute/Purdue University Center for Cancer Research
  • Myeloma tumor cells (in green) and bone cells (red) growing on a scaffold made of silk protein (purple), which is designed to resemble bone material. By using a patient's own cells, these models enable efficient screening of patient-specific responses to therapeutics and interactions with bone marrow cells.Mimicking Multiple Myeloma
  • HeLa cervical cancer cells stained for the cytoskeletal proteins actin (red) and tubulin (green). Examining how cancer cells use cytoskeletal proteins to move through the body may lead to targeted therapies that reverse these protein signals. National Cancer Institute/Winship Cancer Institute at Emory University
  • A mouse model for HER2-positive breast cancer uses a novel imaging technique called transparent tumor tomography that three-dimensionally visualizes the tumor microenvironment at a single cell resolution. National Cancer Institute/Univ. of Chicago Comprehensive Cancer Center
  • A time-lapse image of microtentacles on the surface of a breast tumor cell.National Cancer Institute/Univ. of Maryland Greenebaum Cancer Center
  • Knowing how cancer cells spread to bone and cause bone destruction is important to finding successful treatment. This image shows a large multinucleated osteoclast (red) resorbing bone matrix (orange) adjacent to cancer cells (blue).National Cancer Institute/Indiana Univ. Simon Cancer Center
  • Cervical cancer cells from the HeLa cell line show the interactions of a kinase called LKB1 (in green), a cytoskeletal signaling protein called pFAK (red), and the cell nucleus (blue). National Cancer Institute/Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University
  • A polyploid giant cancer cell (PGCC) from triple-negative breast cancer. PGCCs, a subtype of cancer cell, appear in a variety of solid tumors and appear to help the tumor invade surrounding tissues and migrate to other areas of the body.National Cancer Institute/Univ. of Pittsburg Cancer Institute
  • As tumors grow, they outpace the surrounding blood vessels' ability to provide enough oxygen, a state known as hypoxia. Rather than killing the tumor, however, hypoxia triggers changes in cancer cell metabolism that actually promote tumor growth and spread. National Cancer Institute/Univ. of Chicago Comprehensive Cancer Center
  • Using a novel imaging technique called transparent tumor tomography, researchers obtained this image from a mouse model for HER2-positive breast cancer. Anti-Tumor Immune Response