Watch breast cancer cells die on YouTube

My last post was about MP3′s that you can listen to, to learn more about cancer.  So I thought I would stick with that theme and write about a video of cancer cells. Back in June I wrote about some video animations of cancer cells.  This post is about a video of real, live cancer cells in a laboratory. The video is on YouTube, You’ll probably need a broadband connection to see it and a copy of Adobe Flash Player.

A weather forecaster can look at air pressure and wind direction and tell you what the weather is going to be like tomorrow, as a scientist I can look at this video and give you a rough idea of what is going on, so here goes…

All the cells you see in this video are breast cancer cells, they are growing in a dish in a laboratory, they are NOT inside a person.  They look a lot like the breast cancer cells I used to work with. At the start of the video (the first 1-2 seconds, the pause button is on the left hand side if you want to look more closely) most of the cancer cells look healthy, by that I mean the cancer cells are growing quite happily, which is obviously what you don’t want, you want the cancer cells to be dead or dying.

In this video a healthy cancer cell looks like a black circle surrounded by a fuzzy white ring.  There are quite a lot of them  (at least 70 or so, I used to spend weeks of my life staring down microscopes and counting cancer cells, you go cross eyed after a while…) They are covering most of the frame (i.e the pretty much fill the black box) that means they are healthy, if your cells are sick they don’t stick down and you would see a lot more black space.

At the very start (the first couple of seconds) there are a couple of sick and dying cancer cells, these are the very bright white spots you see along the centre of the frame, they look about the size of  the rubber on the end of a pencil. There are about 6 or 7 of these bright white dots. These are dead cancer cells.  Once cells die, they don’t come back to life, those cells are gone.

If you play the video you will see the cells jiggle about a bit as they grow, this video was probably filmed over a number of hours or days. Your cells are living things, they are moving all the time (even if you can’t feel it!) There is a really active one in the bottom left that spins around and around.

After about 20 seconds you will see more of the cancer cells die, there are a lot more bright white spots (about 15- 20 dots) and a lot less fuzzy rings with black centres. By the end of the video (40 seconds) there are a lot more white spots, this means the cancer cells have died. By the end, I’d guess that at least 50 of the cells had died, so if you were speaking in percentages (as scientists often do) you would say you had 70 % cell death.  Which is a lot!

Why are the cells dying?

The scientist looking after these cells has bathed them in a liquid with a drug called paclitaxel (remember these cells are growing in a plastic dish in a lab, they are not inside a person). Paclitaxel is also called “taxol”. It is given to people with some types of breast, ovarian and lung cancer.  The side effects of taxol are not pleasant, (see this information from Cancer back up for more information) but as you can see from the video, taxol kills cancer cells.

Scientists discovered this drug in the 1960′s, it was first found in the bark of the pacific yew tree (in North America).  I was surprised to learn that two companies in the UK still collect Yew clippings and sell them to drug companies. You can read more about that on the Cancer Research UK website, here.  Taxol can now be made chemically in a laboratory.

This video really helps you to imagine how the chemotherapy drug taxol, kills cancer cells. I’ll write another post on how exactly taxol kills cancer cells, but that video is a good introduction to cell biology and shows how scientists carry out experiments to find treatments for cancer.


8 comments to Watch breast cancer cells die on YouTube

  • Wow – the video didn’t mean much to me until I read your explanation – then it becomes a lot more fascinating!

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