Here’s a riddle for you: What do fireflies and tracking cancerous tumors have in common?
The answer is luciferase. That’s right, the same enzyme that gives fireflies their intriguing glow is being tested by Berkeley Laboratory researchers to monitor the progression of cancerous tumors or infectious diseases in mice without harming the animal—or even having to shave their fur.
Right now you might be thinking, “Wow, this sounds really sci-fi,” but rest assured it’s real and though the research is complicated, the idea behind it is relatively simple and offers real life benefits. In the future, cancer patients, for instance, may be able to have their disease monitored in real time without having to undergo a biopsy or other surgical procedure.
Christopher Chang, a chemist who holds appointments with Berkeley Lab’s Chemical Sciences Division and UC Berkeley’s Chemistry Department, as well as the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, said “in vivo imaging” affords a unique technology for monitoring real time physiological fluctuations in hydrogen peroxide levels. (In vivo is the latin word meaning “within the living”).
“This offers opportunities to dissect the disparate contributions of hydrogen peroxide to health, aging and disease,” the researcher said.
You know hydrogen peroxide as nature’s disinfectant. Hydrogen peroxide is produced within our cells as a small, but highly reactive molecule to kill invading pathogens. It also plays a critical role in cellular signaling that is essential to the growth, development and physical well being of humans and other organisms.
However, if hydrogen peroxide is being over-produced in cells, that’s a cue oxidative stress and inflammation are likely occurring. These signals are linked to the onset and progression of cancer, diabetes, and numerous cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases. So it makes perfect sense that by tracking hydrogen production, researchers should be able to observe changes in tumor progression and other diseases.
To see changes in an organism’s hydrogen peroxide level, the researchers turned to the clever firefly.