Photo of Tyler Allen

Biotechnology & medicine

Tyler Allen

Developed a live imaging system that allows researchers to observe how tumor cells move through the body.

Year Honored

Duke University Cancer Institute


Tyler Allen, 31, developed a live imaging system that allows researchers to observe how tumor cells move through the body—which could pave the way to more effective cancer treatments.

Allen’s work tackles one of oncology’s major challenges: most serious cases of cancer occur after a tumor has spread, or metastasized. Yet that process, in which individual cells travel through the blood like cars on a highway, is poorly understood and hard to detect. Typically, doctors don’t know a cancer is spreading until they discover a second tumor. “By then, the prognosis is often severe,” Allen says.

Allen’s system, which he developed as a doctoral student at North Carolina State University, makes it possible to view this spread in real time. To build it, his team injected human cancer cells into a zebrafish, which they’d genetically modified to make its blood vessels glow. Using a high-powered laser microscope, they observed the cancer cells as they traveled through and exited the bloodstream, paying special attention to those traveling in clusters, which pose a higher risk of forming tumors.

Researchers had thought these clusters would need to break apart before leaving a blood vessel, but Allen’s team observed that some managed to exit intact. Those that did, moreover, were more likely to form a tumor in nearby tissue.

Allen continues to refine his technique as a postdoctoral fellow at the Duke Cancer Institute. The insights his approach makes possible could ultimately help researchers develop therapies that target cancer cells before they spread.