Bernd Bodenmiller

How Cancer Cells Communicate

Bernd Bodenmiller’s research provides in-depth insights into tumors. The quantitative biologist investigates how different cells in diseased tissue interact, paving the way for increasingly targeted interventions.

By Thomas Gull and Roger Nickl; translated by Philip Isler

In his laboratory on UZH’s Irchel Campus, quantitative biologist Bernd Bodenmiller works on the foundation from which new cancer therapies could emerge. One of the key aspects for this to happen is knowing the cancer inside out. The more is known about its composition and behavior, the more targeted and successful it can be fought. Bodenmiller’s area of expertise is called mass cytometry, which analyzes individual cells and how they interact with one another. Bodenmiller has further refined this method into imaging mass cytometry. “Today we can generate images of tissue that show us which cells are positioned where, what they do and how they interact and communicate.” To illustrate what this looks like, he produces an image of a female breast with cancer. “Here’s the milk duct that’s affected by cancer cells, which are colored blue.” The image features further blue areas, and others that are green. “Those are immune cells. Depending on the type of immune cell, this can be good or bad for the patient,” says the biologist. “One of the strengths of our method is that we can map these very differences.”

The cells’ interactions also shed light on how far the tumor has developed and how aggressive it is. The comprehensive picture of the tumor’s “ecosystem” then makes it possible to define treatment methods, for example. “We can very precisely group breast cancer patients into categories that tell us how long the patients are likely to survive,” says Bernd Bodenmiller. For his study, he analyzed data from breast cancer patients and compared their survival time with the cells’ behavior in the original tumor.

Putting heads together

By analyzing tumor and clinical data, Bodenmiller can assign breast cancer patients to specific categories. “But this alone doesn’t yet help them,” he says, “since what really matters is that these women can then be treated in the clinic.” Doing so requires bridging the gap between statistical analysis and treatment by physicians. “That’s the great challenge of precision medicine: We have to bring the relevant basic research findings to the patients.

To achieve this goal more efficiently, basic researchers and clinicians have to step up their cooperation, since according to Bodenmiller, they still know too little about how the others tick, which problems they come across, and which of these could be solved by working together: “Ideally, they’d all be under the same roof, as I saw when I was at Stanford, where researchers would meet up and discuss their ideas over coffee in the break room.” In any case, a culture is needed where clinicians and basic researchers work hand in hand and “put their heads together to find new solutions,” pleads the researcher. The Center for Precision Medicine, which UZH, ETH Zurich and the University’s hospitals are planning together, is a step in the right direction.