Insight into tumour samples

Bernd Bodenmiller  studies the mechanisms of cancer development. The quantitative biologist uses 3D analysis and virtual reality to detect groups of cells that break away from tumours.  
Fundamental researcher Bernd Bodenmiller. (Image: ETH Zurich / Stefan Weiss)

Some ten years have passed since you completed your doctorate under ETH Professor Ruedi Aebersold. What pops into your head when you think back to that time?
The main thing I remember is how much fun I had! It was a fantastic time with a great group of people, and I was free to try out a lot of new ideas. It was also when I met my wife: she spent six months working there as a visiting student.

You’ve been back at ETH Zurich since last autumn. What opportunities has that opened up for you?
My research group studies tumours at the level of individual cells. We analyse thousands of tumour samples and often discover a relation between tissue structure and clinical outcome. The Molecular Health Sciences (MHS) Platform gives us the infrastructure and expertise we need to explore disease mechanisms on the basis of model systems. The topics pursued by MHS research groups are the perfect complement to those being explored by the Department of Quantitative Biomedicine at the University of Zurich, which is my second home!

You developed an imaging mass cytometry technique that actually makes it possible to “walk through” tumour models. What benefits does that offer?
Using 3D visualisation helps us detect structures that we can’t see on tissue sections, such as groups of cells that have broken away from a tumour. Virtual reality gives us completely new perspectives on a tumour. The human brain is very good at identifying visual patterns, so these new perspectives can lead to new ideas and insights.

Is VR something you would also use at home? Perhaps to pay a virtual visit to another country?
Absolutely. The Google Earth VR experience is already very impressive. I’m actually surprised that VR hasn’t taken off more during the pandemic.

What’s the best decision you’ve made in your career so far?
I can think of several good ones. Perhaps the key decisions were doing my doctorate under Ruedi Aebersold, going to Stanford for my postdoc, and taking up my position as assistant professor at the University of Zurich.