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09Dec 2019

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This odd ball has something to celebrate

Deep in the ocean swim all kinds of astonishing and colourful creatures. This odd turquoise ball looks like it could be one of them, but it is something very different: a miniature intestine, which Saskia Suijkerbuijk made during her research into cancer. This painterly photograph won her first prize in the 2019 NKI microscopy image contest.

What if we could thwart cancer cells by supporting their healthy neighbours? Research by Saskia Suijkerbuijk has shown that intestinal cancer cells in the liver may be able to kill adjacent liver cells, thereby improving their own growth opportunities. Understanding how this works may open the way to new therapies.


Almost half of those with colorectal cancer suffer from metastases in the liver at some point. Their effective treatment is still extremely difficult, so researchers are seeking new ways to fight these metastases.

Saskia is doing this by examining how intestinal cancer cells in the liver influence their neighbouring cells for their own benefit. To do so, she uses organoids: a sort of mini-organs, like the one seen in the microscopic image. In the laboratory she can study these tiny organs to find out how intestinal cancer cells and liver cells behave towards one another. She hopes to then discover which cell types suffer most from this competition, and why.


This is an organoid: a miniature intestine, created in the lab and consisting of about 1000 mouse cells. It is about the size of a grain of sand. Turquoise indicates the outer surfaces of the intestinal cells; pink the cells that support the growth of stem cells, so that the intestine can renew itself. The hollow interior functions as the intestinal lumen. (Photoshop oil-painting filter applied)

50 cross-sections

Last year the Dutch Cancer Society awarded Saskia a young investigator grant of €659,000. Once it becomes clear which kinds of signals occur during competition between the cells, then she can also attempt to inhibit these signals - which might reduce growth rates in malignant cells.

Incidentally, creating an image of this kind involves much more work than just pressing a button on the microscope. The organoid is 3D, while the microscope uses lasers to create a 2D (flat) image. Saskia therefore makes images of 50 cross-sections of the organoid, and then combines them to produce a 3D depiction of the entire organoid that can be closely examined.

Read more about this research on the Dutch Cancer Society website (Dutch).

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