This year our Breast Cancer Research Image Competition will be returning for its second year, in partnership with leading journal Breast Cancer Research.

In anticipation of this year’s competition, we’ve interviewed Dr James McConnell from The University of Manchester, to learn more about his stunning, category-winning image from last year.

James is a Post-doctoral Research Associate based at The University of Manchester’s Faculty of Life Sciences. We loved his dramatic image of non-cancerous breast tissue (above) created using a technique called atomic force microscopy. This technique can create incredibly high resolution images on a nanoscale – the image above shows an area of breast tissue measuring just 150 × 150 micrometres (0.15 millimetres), and the process of scanning this area took 16 hours.

We asked James some questions about the image to find out the research behind it. 

Tell us about the research behind your image

We’re trying to understand breast density as seen on mammograms, and how it affects breast cancer risk. Mammograms – X-ray images – are used in the NHS Breast Screening Programme to look at the structure of the breast and try and locate cancers.

Areas of dense breast tissue absorb more X-rays which helps us calculate a measure known as mammographic density. Having dense breasts is one of the biggest risk factors for breast cancer. The reasons behind this increased risk aren’t fully understood, but our studies in non-tumour tissue have shown that dense breasts contain more fibrous tissue than less dense breasts. We’ve also shown that these high density areas are stiffer in dense, compared to less dense breasts.

How could this research reduce people’s risk of developing breast cancer?

These findings may help people at risk of developing cancer because increased stiffness in parts of the breast tissue may trigger normal cells to transform into cancer cells. If we can understand these cellular changes, we can inform future studies that could intervene to reduce breast density before cancer cells grow.

What does the image show?

We have used a technique called atomic force microscopy to look at the breast tissue surrounding the milk ducts – these are the structures in the breast which transport milk during breast feeding. We know cancers often arise here.

Atomic force microscopy allows us to see structures which hold the milk ducts and other breast tissue together like ropes. We call these structures the extra cellular matrix and they include fibres made from collagen.

In this image we can see collagen fibre bundles – the stripy lines – which act like a skeleton, holding the milk ducts in place. We know that if the structure of this collagen ‘skeleton’ changes, it can become stiffer and this can encourage normal cells in the ducts to turn into cancer cells.

James McConnell looking through a microscope

How does atomic force microscopy work?

It works a bit like a record player. We take a section of tissue and put a very sharp tip very close to the surface. As we move this tip across the tissue, it interacts with the tissue surface on the level of atoms – the type of atomic forces involved are rather like when you rub a balloon against a wall and use it to lift your hair. We can then track the height of the tissue surface and create a 3D map of the tissue.

Atomic force microscopy is really useful because it allows us to see very small structures in the tissue – 100 times smaller than a human hair – without causing any damage. We can then still use the tissue for other analyses so that we can better understand how the structure of the matrix can affect breast cancer risk.

What’s happening next with your research?

From April 2017, I’ll be investigating the molecular basis of collagen organisation and breast cancer risk in Manchester, through a project funded by the charity Prevent Breast Cancer.


Image (above right): Dr James McConnell, Post-doctorate Research Associate at the University of Manchester; 2016 Category Winner

More information

Follow Dr James McConnell on Twitter