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Anne Rios: ‘We visualize the unexpected’

Dr. Anne Rios, originating from Marseille, France, has been heading the Princess Máxima Imaging Center since 2017. She started her career doing research in breast cancer. In Utrecht she uses 3D images to make cancer processes literally visible in developing organs of children.

It is very hard to explain what 3D imaging is technically about, but for a quick glimpse one only needs to watch the fascinating video on the Máxima website. In a ten-second clip you see a 3D kidney spinning around, leaving you flabbergasted with all the colours and details. Rios: ‘It’s no coincidence we show this image. One of our focuses is on Wilms’ tumor, a cancer of the kidneys. With our imaging technology we try to understand the advancement of the tumor in the kidney. We look closely at how the cells organize themselves and interchange with the tissue around them.’

Decipher the mechanisms
The Wilms’ tumor program is an example of very promising imaging techniques to visualize organs and tumors in 3D. Rios: ‘Our goal is to use imaging technologies in biological cancer research. It can be used to understand what sticks behind the start and growth of childhood cancer in a developing organ. This knowledge also helps to understand why a treatment works out well in one child but isn’t effective in another patient. What makes cancer cells more aggressive in certain cases?’

Light up the tumour
The imaging technology can also be useful in surgery, says Rios. ‘You can light up the tumor you want to remove. This can help a surgeon to better perform an operation. This technique is already being used in adult oncology, but in paediatric oncology it’s still very new. I’m happy we can contribute to this innovation for the children of the Máxima.’

Powerful immune cells

Another challenging project is about developing imaging for immunotherapy. Rios: ‘We want to understand the behavior of both cancer cells and the immune cells that attack them. How do immune cells work together? Can we pull out the most dynamic cells, so that we could make their joint efforts even more powerful? We almost literally want to capture this in a movie, so that we are able to look at what really happens deep inside the cells.’

Communicating science
The efforts of her group don’t stop at the threshold of the Máxima, Rios concludes. The team also uses 3D technology to inform others about ‘how cancer works’. ‘We developed a 3D-stereo-display with 3D-glasses. People can take a look inside virtual organs and see what a tumor looks like. This can create a new trend in communicating science. If we reach a larger public, I’m convinced we will accomplish our mission even sooner.’