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Firefly molecule could quickly shed light on how well new drugs work

ANN ARBOR, MI The process that makes fireflies glow bright in the summer night can also shed light on how well new medicines work, showing immediately whether the drugs are effective at killing cells or causing other effects.

That's the conclusion of a team of scientists from the University of Michigan Health System, who report that they have inserted the gene for a firefly's glow-producing molecule into mice with cancer, and kept it from producing its telltale beacon of light until the cells started to die in response to cancer treatment.

Using a highly sensitive camera, the researchers were able to immediately detect the faintest traces of the firefly light as it passed outside the bodies of the mice.

The findings, published in the Dec. 24 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and posted online last week, promises to give researchers a new way to get real-time information on whether new medicines are working.

It could be used to speed up the testing of new drugs for cancer, stroke, AIDS, auto-immune disorders, blood diseases, heart attack damage, nerve-degenerative diseases like Alzheimer's disease, and other disorders where drugs are needed to kill cells, or to stop cell death. It could also be used to monitor other cell processes.

"This is the first time anyone has been able to make real-time images of apoptosis -- the process of cell death that is so important to so many diseases and treatments," says lead author Alnawaz Rehemtulla, Ph.D., associate professor of radiation oncology at the U-M Medical School and co-director of the U-M Center for Molecular Imaging. "This proves that we can see what's going on at the molecular level while the drugs are working, giving results in days or weeks instead of months or years.'

The process is made possible through the use of luciferase, the enzyme that triggers a chemical process that lights up the tails of fireflies. The light-emitting process, call
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Contact: Kara Gavin
umhsmedia@umich.edu
734-764-2220
University of Michigan Health System
17-Dec-2002


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