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Protein from fireflies lights the way for mesothelioma treatment

Researchers are experimenting with a genetically modified protein extracted from fireflies that could guide a heat-based treatment to shrink mesothelioma tumors.


An enzyme called luciferase is responsible for the bioluminescence — the light emission in living organisms — of fireflies, the sea pansy and certain bacteria. Researchers at New York’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center were able to isolate the enzyme from a firefly and bind it with mesothelioma cells in mice, causing the cells to glow.


To establish a benchmark, the researchers measured the amount of tumor cells using bioluminescence imaging, a noninvasive technique used to study biological processes in laboratory animals. They reported that as few as 10 of the modified cells exhibited a bioluminescent signal or glow.


The glow allowed the researchers to target the malignant cells with electrocautery ablation, a thermal treatment. As the temperature and exposure time of the thermal treatments increased, the bioluminescence of the cancerous cells decreased, and the tumors were eliminated.


In a summary of the study, published March 31 in the Annals of Surgical Oncology, the researchers said the findings suggest luciferase might someday lead to a noninvasive method of detecting and treating mesothelioma and other cancers.


“In mice, the bioluminescence signal correlated with (mesothelioma) tumor size post-treatment and effectively guided the ablation procedure to completion, achieving zero percent tumor recurrence,” they wrote.


Mesothelioma is an extremely aggressive cancer of the linings of the lungs and other organs. Caused by asbestos, the disease can take decades to develop after initial exposure, making it difficult to diagnose and treat. Mesothelioma kills 2,500-3,000 Americans each year, usually within two years of diagnosis.


Surgery, chemotherapy and radiation have only modestly improved outcomes in mesothelioma patients, so researchers have been experimenting with new drugs and techniques to improve the prognosis.