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Firefly Light Helps Destroy Cancer Cells

Could the gentle firefly turn out to be a potent weapon against cancer? In a new study, researchers from London inserted the firefly gene that activates bioluminescent light into modified cancer cells, hoping to set off a chain of events that has a proven track record at fighting the disease. This light source, known as Luciferin, caused the modified cancer cells to glow much like it does with the firefly. When a photosensitizing agent was added, the combination proved lethal.

"The cells produced enough light to trigger their own death," said Dr. Theodossis Theodossiou of the National Medical Laser Centre, University College London. University College London scientists and colleagues at the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research published their results today in the journal Cancer Research.

This firefly technique (BioLuminescence Activated Destruction of cancer, or BLADe) may add a further layer of depth to photodynamic therapy, an effective treatment that uses bursts of light to attack tumors that sit near the skin's surface or on the lining of internal organs. As part of the therapy, cancer cells are treated with a photosensitizer and then exposed to lasers or another external beam. The light triggers the production of active oxygen species that can destroy cancer cells.

External light sources, however, can only pass through a small amount of tissue to get to the tumor. In an attempt to treat deeper malignancies, the BLADe team inserted the light source into the disease itself.

Cancer cells were modified to express the firefly luciferase gene and then incubated with luciferin in the lab. The cells essentially became miniature lamps, giving out light that could trigger their own destruction. After a photosensitizer was added, the cells produced toxic substances that forced them to commit suicide.

"The light is generated within the tumor cell, so there's no need for outside penetration," said study co-author John Hothersall of the Institute of Urology and Nephrology, University College London.

The researchers are pursuing efforts to one day test the firefly-inspired treatment in patients. Already, a separate team has shown that it's feasible to deliver the Luciferase gene to prostate cancer cells. As a mobile light source, the firefly gene may have far-reaching applications.

"Luciferase could be transferred to primary tumors, and from there it could migrate to cancer cells that spread," said Dr. Theodossiou.

Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research. April 2003.

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