New technology sends Tufts veterinary scientists on journey to center of the cell

The Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine is pictured. via Wikimedia Commons

New cutting edge technology recently installed at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University reminds Cheryl London, the associate dean for research and graduate education, of the 1966 sci-fi film “Fantastic Voyage.”

In the movie, an intrepid submarine crew shrinks down small enough to float through an injured scientist’s bloodstream to save his life.

The new technology, called spatial profiling, allows scientists to see so deep into tissue samples that London, an oncologist, said it feels like you’re actually there on the surface of the cell.

“It’s like taking a bird’s-eye look inside the cell itself,” London said. 

The Cummings School won a $2 million grant from the Waltham-based Massachusetts Life Sciences Center for the new equipment this spring, and it was installed over the summer. 

London and her team submitted their grant proposal to the MLSC, an organization that pools state and private money to invest in science research across the state, through the agency’s Research Infrastructure Program in the fall of 2020.

At the end of February of this year, an email informed London that Tufts had won the competitive grant.

“When you get the notification that you’ve been funded it’s one of those woo-hoo moments,” London said. “You do a little dance, and you’re pretty excited.”

The equipment was installed last June and July in the newly renovated Peabody Pavilion lab space, and by September it was available for use. 

The new lab equipment also includes advanced genetic sequencing and NanoString technology, which is able to sequence the DNA of a single cell.

London said the technology is a product of the latest in a series of major scientific leaps in the fields of genomics and pathology and has advanced rapidly.

Spatial profiling technology was only developed in the last five years. Next generation sequencing is slightly older, having been developed in the years following the conclusion of the Human Genome Project in 2003.

This is the first time that either technology will be available on Tufts’ campus, and the new lab will function as a shared resource, London said. While the technology is currently only available to those who have been trained extensively on how to use the expensive equipment, students and faculty from any of the university’s campuses will be able to submit proposals to use the equipment. London is talking with researchers at Tufts University School of Medicine who intend to apply for funding for experiments that use the technology.

Some research is already underway with the new technology. One of the few researchers who has been using the technology for her research is Heather Gardner (GBS’20), a Cummings School assistant research professor specializing in veterinary oncology and genetics.

Gardner studies the impact of losing subsets of genes when DNA is transcribed into RNA in the context of bone cancer. The next generation sequencing has enabled her to examine that process in individual cells, she wrote in an email to the Daily.

The spatial-profiling technology is helping Gardner too. It allows her to zoom in on canine bone cancer micro-environments to examine how the tumors change gene expression.

“This equipment really compliments and adds a new dimension to the research already being done,” Gardner said.

Frequently, Cummings School researchers like Gardner are doing experiments on nonhuman animal cells not only to develop therapies for the animals themselves, but to use them as models for treatments in humans as well.

For that to work, though, scientists have to ensure the animal models accurately mimic the human body.

“Sometimes models look like they’re the real deal on the outside,” London said. “But when you look at the genetic level it’s really not the same.”

The new technology will help Cummings School researchers do just that.

Joseph Sullivan, vice president of marketing, communications, and community relations at the MLSC, said the organization was “very proud” to have funded Tufts’ new equipment.

Sullivan wrote in an email to the Daily that the organization hopes the new shared resources will catalyze scientific collaboration, research and innovation in Worcester and the rest of central Massachusetts with the Cummings School as an anchor institution.

For now, London said the team is still “getting [its] feet wet” but quickly warming up to the new lab.

“Walking in and seeing all of this is super cool,” London said. “It’s like a car enthusiast seeing 10 Lamborghinis in a garage. It’s amazing to see the power of the equipment you have around you.”


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