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Mapping cancer's secret chemistry

Hands-on at the exhibit

  • Find out more about cancer - build your very own mass spectrometry image of a sample and work out what it is
  • Build up a picture of the network of molecules, cells and tissues that make up a tumour
  • Step into the shoes of a surgeon - perform an iKnife operation and use mass spectrometry to determine what parts of a tumour to remove

Find out more

Our knowledge of cancer biology has grown enormously, but we still don’t know how a tumour works, and why our medicines don’t always work. Understanding tumours better could reveal new ways to diagnose and treat cancer faster and more effectively.

We are using new imaging techniques to look more closely at a tumour, to unravel the mysteries within it. There is much more to a cancer tumour than just cancer cells. The ‘micro-environment’ of tumours comprises an entire support system, including blood vessels to transport nutrients and other types of cells. It involves interactions between molecules, cells and tissues in a complex network that we do not understand. But current imaging technologies give little or no information about why these cells are there, how they got there and what they are doing.

To solve this, we've built a team of physicists, chemists and biologists to map cancer in unprecedented detail. They will use new imaging techniques, based on mass spectrometry imaging, that can map the position of hundreds of different chemical species at the same time. Our team will use this to create multi-scale maps of tumours which allow us to explore the complex community of cancer cells living within them.

Our research will reveal how tumours survive and why they keep growing, enabling us to build a complete picture of cancer. It could lead to new methods to diagnose cancer and new drugs and treatments to help people with cancer in the future.

Find out more at NPL's Grand Challenge.

Presented by: National Physical LaboratoryImperial College London, Institute of Cancer Research, Cancer Research UK, The Francis Crick Institute, The Beatson Institute for Cancer Research, AstraZeneca, University of Cambridge, Barts Cancer Institute.