Dr Delphine Merino and her team at the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute are using a technique commonly found in the aisles of supermarkets to conduct cutting-edge cancer research.

Their work follows on from a paper Dr Merino co-authored which was published in the prestigious journal Nature Communications.

Her team at the Institute is using barcodes to identify, track and analyse the genetic properties of aggressive breast cancer cells that spread to other parts of the body or resist drug treatment.

Why barcodes?

Barcodes were introduced by retailers in the 1970s to allow them to identify and track millions of unique products. Those small boxes of black and white parallel lines are now such a ubiquitous part of life we barely notice them.

In recent years, medical research has adopted the same technique to solve the challenge of categorising and tracking millions of unique human cells.

With genetic barcoding, each individual cell is labelled with a unique nucleic acid sequence – a barcode – which allows the cell to be tracked as it moves around a body.

Using barcodes to tag cancer cells

The technique of genetic barcoding has recently been applied to cancer research, and Dr Merino is leading the way in using barcodes to identify drugs that may prevent cancer cells from spreading or becoming resistant to standard treatment.

“Metastasis – the spread of cancer cells beyond their primary site – is the primary cause of death of breast cancer patients,” explains Dr Merino.

“Spreading cells are often biologically different than the cells in the original tumour, so by labelling all the cells in a tumour we can then see how each tumour cell responds in the presence of various drug treatments.”

Barcodes show potential for targeted breast cancer treatments

Delphine co-authored a paper in the journal Nature Communications, which she produced with Dr Salin Naik, Prof Jane Visvader and Prof Geoffrey Lindeman at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research.

Their study shows that the barcoding technique can be used to track how breast cancer cells spread to different parts of the body.

The researchers found that only a few cells were responsible for the metastasis of a tumour and these cells were the ‘seeds’ causing new tumour growth.

The research is an important step in understanding how cancer cells spread from the breast to other organs.

Understanding breast cancer one cell at a time

For Dr Merino, her work with cellular barcodes is part of a broader mission to understand how breast cancer tumours spread.

Her team at the Institute is now analysing the genetic makeup of the cells identified as the ‘seeds’ for new tumours.

“There is hope for new treatments just by understanding our enemies better,” she says.

“Barcoding has given us a tool to focus our efforts on the specific cells that caused metastatic tumours. It is helping us understand which cells we need to target, so we can improve the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of this terrible disease.”

Find out more about:
Dr Delphine Merino
Translational Breast Cancer Program 
Tumour Progression and Heterogeneity Laboratory

Read the publication in Nature Communications