Immunotherapy Cancer Research Elevated Thanks to New Fluorescent Microscope at Georgetown Lombardi

High-end imaging device with analysis software is one of a few in the country

Linda and Stanley Sher, Michael Atkins
Dr. Michael Atkins (center) with Linda and Stanley Sher of Washington, D.C., in a Georgetown Lombardi research laboratory

In June 2017, Georgetown Lombardi upgraded its oncology research capabilities with the purchase of a Perkin Elmer Vectra 3.0 Automated Quantitative Pathology Imaging System. A $1M gift from Linda and Stanley Sher of Washington, D.C. established the Sher Immunotherapy Initiative Capital Fund to support the purchase of the imaging platform as well as a current-use fund to support training in the use of the new platform and immunotherapy research in general.

"The imaging platform and its image analysis software are able to show us the extent and phenotype of immune cells in the tumor microenvironment and their spatial relationship to the tumor cells," explains Dr. Michael Atkins, deputy director of the Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center and an internationally recognized authority in cancer immunotherapy, angiogenesis, kidney cancer, and melanoma. "This will provide insights into how specific tumors are evading immune attack, which will guide our tumor immunology and immunotherapy research efforts."

A Grateful Patient
In 2013, Stanley Sher was diagnosed with an aggressive form of melanoma. After several failed treatments and surgeries, he sought treatment at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital where he enrolled in a clinical trial of an immunotherapy combination through Georgetown Lombardi. Within weeks his melanoma began to shrink and within three months he was cancer-free.

The study regimen is now FDA-approved for patients with metastatic melanoma.

Mr. Sher, whose experience at Georgetown Lombardi was recently documented in a video, described his treatment by Dr. Michael Atkins as "almost like magic, especially after all those traumatic surgeries." He wanted to give back to the place that "literally saved my life."

The Shers asked Dr. Atkins what types of equipment his department might need and the Perkin Elmer Vectra microscope was among the items on the list. "At first we ruled it out. I think we were envisioning something from a high school biology class," laughs Linda Sher. However as she and her husband discovered that this was not a typical microscope but an integrated image analysis system and learned more about the value and importance of this system to Lombardi researchers in different branches of oncology, they decided it was the best choice for the department's needs.

As oncology professor Dr. Michael D. Johnson explains, "you don't even look in the viewer. We train the microscope and it does the work for us."

Beautiful but Deadly Cells
In October 2017, the Shers were given a tour of the Lombardi laboratory where the new microscope is being used.

They learned about the complicated, weeklong process of staining the cells different colors—and the resulting image analysis, performed by the microscope's high-end software.

The enlarged, color-coded images show exactly where the immune cells are in relation to the tumor cells, something that can't be done with the naked eye. The "microarray" function allows users to put portions of multiple different tumors on a single slide, for side-by-side comparison.

Looking at the colorful, magnified tumor cells on the screen, Linda Sher remarks "It's almost ironic how beautiful it is."

Taking Research to the Next Level
"Right now, my biggest challenge is filling all the requests that come in," shares Dr. Deborah Berry, co-director of Lombardi's Histopathology and Tissue Shared Resource. "Everyone here is very excited to work with the microscope."

Because it is one of the few in the country, the microscope will be a factor in Georgetown Lombardi's grant proposals.

The team has already stained and analyzed melanoma samples from multiple cancer centers nationwide in order to ask questions like "How does the baseline biopsy change? Is the treatment doing what we want? What immune cells are coming in? Are they proliferating? Why do some immune cells reach the tumor while others do not?"

The field of immunotherapy, being led by Dr. Atkins and team, is changing the lives of patients all over the country.

"It makes us happy to have done something so useful," adds Linda Sher.