Digital Holographic Microscopy Technology for biomarker detection in cancer

Zahra El-Schich, post doc at Malmö University, is one of the first users of HoloMonitor. In her research, she focuses on finding cancer cells and metastatic cancer cells. With help from Digital Holographic Microscopy (DHM) Technology and HoloMonitor she can record when Molecularly Imprinted Polymers (MIP:s) – designed to perfectly fit the cancer cell’s surface - find the cancer cells. MIP: s are attracted to sialic acid, found on the surface of all cells but especially on cancer cells and even more on metastatic cancer cells. Future research within MIP and DHM will lead to early prognosis of circulating cancer cells and individual cancer treatment.

We have 37,000 billion cells in our bodies. Every cell is programmed to one specific purpose, a certain amount of cell divisions, and when to die. Inside every cell there is DNA. External factors such as pollution in the environment, smoking, smog, alcohol, some food, lack of exercise, stress, genetic heritage, certain viruses etc can affect the DNA and cause errors during cell division. This in turn increases the risks of having cancer.

Cancer cells divide quickly and make everything they can to hide from the immune system. When one single cell falls out of a tumor and enters the blood system, cancer is spread. The circulating cancer cells end up in other organs and when dividing start a new metastatic cancer tumor. Ideal would be to find cancer cells circulating in the blood and treat cancer patients in a customized way. Zahra El-Schich’ research is about to find a solution of treating cancer in a more efficient way and save cancer patients from unnecessary, and painful, cancer treatments.

We all look different. Cancer and cancer treatment differs from person to person. Today, when treating cancer, we give pretty much the same treatment to patients with similar cancer diagnosis. If it works then it’s fine, but if the cancer patient doesn’t react to the treatment, then the treatment is being changed to another combination of chemo, and if that doesn’t work then another treatment is being tried. During this process cancer cells can become resistant to the cancer treatment. The body gets exhausted because healthy cells and white blood cells also dies during the treatment. Stem cells will produce new cells, but in the meanwhile the body is rather exhausted. I believe that we in the near future will be able to offer better and customized cancer treatments for a better and more cost-efficient cancer care and a better future for those diagnoses with cancer.

Tell me a bit about yourself.

“My name is Zahra El-Schisch. I’ve studied Molecular Biology at the University of Lund in Sweden. Ten years ago I was looking for a biology project to work with, and I got in contact with Professor Anette Gjörloff Wingren; she works with the GlycoImaging project (read more about her project here). There was a new prototype of a microscope from Phase Holographic Imaging that needed to be tested.  You had to do everything manually back then. Today, with the fourth generation HoloMonitor M4, things are much smoother. You can just prepare your cells, put them into the incubator and start recording the cells.”

“A few years and a couple of projects later I ended up here at Malmo University again with the project I’m working with now.”


To the left you see one of two protypes of the first holographic microscopy developed by Phase Holographic Imaging. (Right) The latest generation holographic microscopy HoloMonitor M4 can be placed inside the incubator and the size fits in one hand.

Tell me about your project.

We are working on finding a method to detect circulating tumor cells in the blood.”

In what way has HoloMonitor M4 helped you in your project?

“With blood samples and DHM you can measure the volume of the cell and separate small cells from larger cells. Blood cells for instance are smaller than tumor cells. The main advantage with HoloMonitor is that it’s possible to analyze living cells during a long period of time – and you can record everything.”

Would you be able to do your research without HoloMonitor M4?

“No, not on living cells.”

What do you think your results could lead to in the future?

“In the near future, you could have a HoloMonitor in every clinic. Imagine using time-lapse recordings on tumor samples from patients. You could also customize cancer treatment for every patient by just using a simple tumor test. Then you could test different cancer treatments on the tumor sample, which concentration to use and see which treatment fits which patient. All patients are different. One patient might only need the lowest dose of chemo therapy, and another patient will need to have the highest dose, and for some patients the highest dose isn’t enough. Instead of testing on the patients live, treatments could be tested on the tumor sample.  This would give every patient better cancer treatment and a better chance of being declared healthy, and reduce risks like resistance to treatment.”

“We are all genetically different, and cancer heritage from different factors. Breast cancer for instance can be caused by hormones or genetical factors; two people with the same diagnosis, like breast cancer, have different treatments. A sample can show which protein the cancer cells are carrying and help to choose treatment. We are different – why should we have the same cancer treatment?”

How does it feel to work with this?

“Great! It is a good thing to work with and I’d love to contribute to progress within cancer care. I just want things to move a bit faster!”