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.