Silver Linings: Counting the Invisible

Every cloud has a silver lining. Even very dark clouds, like cancer. As part of our Silver Linings 25th Anniversary, we asked over 300 V Scholars to tell us about their silver linings related to cancer, from their work or personal experience. Below is the winning essay. Additional entries will be posted throughout the year.

Counting the Invisible

by Je Lee, M.D., Ph.D., Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

As a child, my wish was to travel among the stars one day. I also wanted to cure cancer. When I grew up, I learned about the universe and cancer biology. As an optimist, I always thought there must be a way, especially for the latter. However, a cloud of skepticism loomed among my peers. Curiously, I noticed that the cloud appears when people run out of ways of seeing the invisible world around us. So I left medicine to pursue genetics and technology development, and I learned to count things.

In the ancient times, people looked up at the night sky, saw points of light, and imagined other worlds that might exist. People gave them names and recorded their movement across the sky over time. As science and technology progressed, we invented methods to count almost an infinite number of stars back to the beginning of time. We are starting to understand the fabric of the universe itself.

In cancer genetics, scientists count cells, genes, mutations, proteins, and other molecules inside the cancer cell within a galaxy of many galaxies of normal cells in the human body. I am building technologies to take a snap shot of all cells in our version of the biological Milky Way, including their DNA mutations, to study and track each cell in 3D. I know that our approach will not immediately lead to cure for cancer, but I would like to enable scientists and clinicians to see the invisible. I want them to figure out the fabric of cancer progression inside the human body.

The cloud of disappointment and frustration among our patients and physicians is palpable, but it is temporary. Until cure for cancer happens, we need to keep the wonder of science and biological exploration alive by counting the invisible.