Success Story

April 25, 2019  |  Jola Glotzer

Understanding cell-to-cell communication in cancer

Two CBC awardees, Laura Sanchez and Joanna Burdette, UIC, developed a novel method of sample preparation to detect small molecule exchange using imaging mass spectrometry

Laura Sanchez and Joanna Burdette, UIC

Congratulations to Laura Sanchez and Joanna Burdette, UIC, for their recent publication in the Journal of Visualized Experiments. The article describes research, which is partially funded by a CBC Catalyst Award to Laura Sanchez, on development of a novel method of sample preparation to accommodate cell and tissue co-culture to detect small molecule exchange. The method, which relies on the use of imaging mass spectrometry, was successfully tested on serous ovarian cancer and its interactions with the surrounding ovarian tissues during the process of metastasis. The technology promises to be widely applicable to studying other cell-to-cell chemical communications.

Publication attributed to CBC funding*:

Zink KE, Dean M, Burdette JE, Sanchez LM. Capturing Small Molecule Communication Between Tissues and Cells Using Imaging Mass Spectrometry. J. Vis. Exp. (146), e59490, doi:10.3791/59490 (2019). (


Imaging mass spectrometry (IMS) has routinely been applied to three types of samples: tissue sections, spheroids, and microbial colonies. These sample types have been analyzed using matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization time-of-flight mass spectrometry (MALDI-TOF MS) to visualize the distribution of proteins, lipids, and metabolites across the biological sample of interest. We have developed a novel sample preparation method that combines the strengths of the three previous applications to address an underexplored approach for identifying chemical communication in cancer, by seeding mammalian cell cultures into agarose in coculture with healthy tissues followed by desiccation of the sample. Mammalian tissue and cells are cocultured in close proximity allowing chemical communication via diffusion between the tissue and cells. At specific time points, the agarose-based sample is dried in the same manner as microbial colonies prepared for IMS analysis. Our method was developed to model the communication between high grade serous ovarian cancer derived from the fallopian tube as it interacts with the ovary during metastasis. Optimization of the sample preparation resulted in the identification of norepinephrine as a key chemical component in the ovarian microenvironment. This newly developed method can be applied to other biological systems that require an understanding of chemical communication between adjacent cells or tissues.


Funding was provided by the Chicago Biomedical Consortium with support from the Searle Funds at The Chicago Community Trust (C-076) (L.M.S.); University of Illinois at Chicago Startup Funds (L.M.S.); Grant 543296 from the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund Alliance (M.D.); and UG3 ES029073 (J.E.B.) and by the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, National Institute of Health, through grant UL1TR002003 (JEB & LMS).

Featured CBC Community member(s):

Joanna Burdette, UIC

Laura Sanchez, UIC


October 17, 2018
▸ Building a library of… bacteria
Two CBC awardees, Laura Sanchez and Brian Murphy, UIC, co-PIs on a $1.7 million NIH grant to create a reference library of bacteria

October 12, 2018
▸ Ovarian or fallopian tube cancer?
Two UIC scientists with links to CBC, Joanna Burdette and Laura Sanchez, collaborate to decipher the origin and the mechanism of spread of ovarian cancer