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Firefly Compound Guides Mesothelioma Treatment


An oxidative enzyme derived from fireflies may help shed light on a new treatment for mesothelioma. Researchers at Memorial Sloan-Kettering in New York, one of the country’s top cancer centers, have just released their findings on the use of firefly luciferase as a guide for a heat-based treatment of  mesothelioma.

Firefly luciferase is an enzyme responsible for the bioluminescence of fireflies.  When the enzyme is isolated and treated, it can be made to bind with certain biomarkers, causing cells with these markers to glow. The technique has opened the door for bioluminescence imaging, a precision imaging method that works at the molecular level.

In the new study, mesothelioma cells were treated with a specially-prepared firefly luciferase gene and their level of bioluminescence was measured. Researchers found that bioluminescence could be detected in a sample as small as ten cells.  Next, the cells were subjected to thermal treatment in a heated chamber, after which their bioluminescence and the number of remaining live cells were measured. Researchers found that the bioluminescence of mesothelioma cells decreased as the temperature and heat exposure time increased. This suggests that heat-based treatments may be effective against mesothelioma and that firefly luciferase can be a valuable guidance system.

To see how the technique worked in a living creature, the team induced mesothelioma in lab mice using the treated bioluminescent mesothelioma cells. The mice then underwent electrocautery tumor ablation – a heat-based technique for shaving down tumors – guided by bioluminescence imaging.  The bioluminescence of the remaining mesothelioma cells and the size of the tumors were measured for 3 weeks.

“In mice, the bioluminescence signal correlated with (mesothelioma) tumor size post treatment and effectively guided the ablation procedure to completion, achieving 0% tumor recurrence,” observed the authors in a summary of their findings in the Annals of Surgical Oncology.

Mesothelioma is a fast-growing cancer that effects the internal membranes around organs. It can be highly resistant to standard therapies such as chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery.  Electrocautery ablation is being studied as a possible alternative.


Au, Joyce et al, “Bioluminescence Imaging Serves as a Dynamic Marker for Building and Assessing Thermal Treatment for Cancer in a Preclinical Model”, March 2012, Annals of Surgical Oncology, Epub ahead of print.

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