We've all marveled at the day-glo life-forms in Avatar — but bioluminescence could save your life soon. Researchers have been able to inject brain tumor cells with a firefly gene, so they can identify the types of cells that spread.
Researchers at A*STAR in Singapore and the United States used a method called "gene transfection" to develop brain-tumor cells that expressed a firefly gene, so they would emit light. They looked for the cells that were the most mobile within a three-dimensional matrix, and it turned out "the most invasive cells express a gene that makes them mobile." That same gene has been associated with reduced survival in cancer patients.
Then the researchers injected these tumor cells into zebrafish embryos, which have a fast development cycle. A few days later, they were able to watch the bioluminescent tumor cells moving around the zebrafish bodies, invading other organs.
This new bioluminescence screening platform represents a unique real-time method for observing small numbers of cancer cells in a live animal. It is cheaper, easier and far more sensitive than existing imaging methods such as positron emission or computed tomography scanning, or magnetic resonance or fluorescent imaging. Furthermore, the discovery of a genetic subset of highly invasive GBM cells could help greatly in the development of drugs that target tumor-initiating cells.