Guiding light: In experimental mesothelioma treatment, firefly proteins make tumors glowIt might sound like the realm of pure science fiction, but fireflies are helping scientists create a new and unusual treatment for mesothelioma. This therapy, possibly the bizarrest of any currently experimental treatment, involves getting tumors to create luciferase, the enzyme that helps fireflies glow in the dark.
According to a description of the experiment published in the journal Annals of Surgical Oncology, the procedure is intended to help surgeons spot malignant mesothelioma cells during their surgical removal.
Though the study was only a proof of concept, the researchers said that its results were very encouraging.
Scientists at New York's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center began by modifying a virus to carry a vector - that is, the DNA code - for the luciferase gene found in fireflies. The team then exposed mesothelioma cells in a dish to this specially engineered virus. Afterward, they examined the resulting malignant growth to determine how brightly the new cells shone in the dark.
Evidently, the modified mesothelioma cells were easy to see. Researchers wrote that bioluminescent tumors glowed so brightly that doctors could detect as few as 10 such cells glowing in a tissue sample in the dark.
This effect allowed the team to try using this light as a guide for tumor removal surgery. The group transplanted the glowing cells into laboratory mice, then tried removing them using electrocauterization ablation, a procedure that involves using electricity to heat and destroy tissue. The results were extraordinary.
"The bioluminescence signal correlated with tumor size posttreatment and effectively guided the ablation procedure to completion, achieving 0 percent tumor recurrence," researchers explained.
They were careful to add that such treatment is not available for human use, nor has it been proven to be an effective treatment for mesothelioma. However, they recommended that more research be conducted on bioluminescence-guided cauterization, since luciferase-producing tumors were remarkably easy to see and, thus, to target.
Patients may be interested to know that this field of research is not new. In fact, it first appeared in 1999, when researchers from Stanford University released a pair of studies proving that genetically modified, bioluminescent cells could help doctors monitor the extent of ovarian cancers.
A 2009 investigation appearing in the Journal of Clinical Oncology described using luciferase to track the spread of mesothelioma, but the new study may be the first to make use of firefly enzymes when actually treating the disease.
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