Patients with terminal and last stage cancer are now donating their bodies to science to help improve the chances of developing a cure in near future.
Andrew Rowan at the Francis Crick Institute in Central London has been working with human tissue for a long time. The job generally involves cutting up brain pieces and storing them in test tubes for analysis, while the rest of the brain is places in a polystyrene container with dry ice.
Rowan, who is a senior research scientist at the Cancer Evolution and Genome Instability Laboratory of the institute, has worked with human flesh for a significant amount of time that by now he can identify the cancerous samples by just looking at them – “They’re often different in color, morphology, appearance”.
A recent case that he worked on was of a 60 year old man. The donor had numerous tumors in his abdominal region. Rowan said, “We were prompted that the case would be mainly brain disease, so we were surprised at the extent of it elsewhere. Hopefully it will give us some clues.”
Preparing a sample for analysis is an extensive process. After cutting and blending, the specimens are organized into groups. Some are set in molten paraffin wax to be studied at room temperature, while the rest are frozen for later studies. The ones with the best quality are used for ‘genetic sequencing’.
Genetic or DNA sequencing is the process of determining the order of nucleotides in the DNA strand, usually by the order of the four bases, cytosine, adenine, thymine and guanine. DNA sequencing has become a basis of numerous applied fields such as medical diagnosis, biotechnology, virology, forensic biology and biological systematics. Comparing the healthy with the mutated DNA can help diagnose different diseases including cancers, characterize antibody repertoire, and devise a treatment plan for the patient.
Rowan shared, “We’re making a slurry soup of matter. We will then conduct something called ‘deep sequencing’ – we try and make sure we are picking up the total number of [genetic] mutations from that sample. All tumour tissue that is left over is collected for this, as we want to make sure nothing gets wasted.”
The Posthumous Evaluation of Advanced Cancer Environment (PEACE) is a project looking at the was the cancer spreads. Sponsored by Cancer Research UK, the study “follows a simple premise: terminally ill cancer patients agree to donate their body to science after they die, allowing researchers to perform autopsies to collect their blood and tissue for testing.”
Previously, the research was done on the limited samples obtained from biopsies, leaving no room for error. The results were also not very helpful in understanding the big picture of the body’s internal ecosystem. The PEACE volunteers allow the scientists to access a large range of organs, directly from the body, enabling some revolutionary discoveries which will help in the better understanding of the disease and coming up with a possible cure.
In the past 10 years, the number of research related autopsies have declined steeply. A common misconception is that modern technologies have made these practices useless.
Charles Swanton, one of the lead geneticists at Crick, said, “When we were medical students, we used to go to the mortuary frequently to understand why patients died of that particular disease. Now, I think there is a sort of view that we don’t need to know – that it’s not terribly important and it’s not going to tell us very much.”