Bioethics Blogs

Snapshots of Life: Portrait of Skin Cancer

Squamous cell carcinoma

Caption: This image shows the uncontrolled growth of cells in squamous cell carcinoma.
Credit: Markus Schober and Elaine Fuchs, The Rockefeller University, New York

For Markus Schober, science is more inspiring when the images are beautiful, even when the subject is not. So, when this biologist was at The Rockefeller University in New York and peered through his microscope at squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), both the diabolical complexity—and the beauty—of this common form of skin cancer caught his eye.

Schober wasn’t the only one who found the image compelling. A panel of judges from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences and the American Society for Cell Biology chose to feature it in their Life: Magnified exhibit, which recently opened at the Washington Dulles International Airport.

As gorgeous as the micrograph may be, it has meaning beyond its artistic merit. It illustrates in vivid detail the biomedical puzzle that Schober, now an NIH-funded researcher at New York University’s Langone Medical Center, is trying to crack: is there any way to turn SCC—the second most common form of skin cancer among Caucasians—from a potentially fatal disease into a harmless condition? [1]

So, let’s take a closer look at this sample of tumor tissue from a mouse. Actively dividing skin cancer cells (red) are seen invading healthy tissue as they grow. As these malignant cells spread, they leave other skin cells (green) in their wake [2]. The blue dots in the image are nuclei of all cell types—the cells that are neither red nor green are blood vessels, fibroblasts, immune cells, and other cells that make up the “stroma” of the skin.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.