The team carried out their work on cells taken from fish scales that are somewhat comparable to human skin cells, Roy said.
"The laser technique we used is novel and powerful because it allows us to actually manipulate proteins in specific places inside cells and do it instantaneously," he said. "That's a huge advantage over conventional genetic approaches, which take a lot of time and can be compensated for by cells making other proteins that nullify the original genetic manipulation."
Light-directed disruption studies promise to teach scientists much about cell movement and behavior, Roy said.
"We think this opens a lot of possibilities for learning what many signaling molecules do inside cells," he said. "If you can understand the behavior of an internal protein, then you can make inhibitors or promoters that have implications for drug discovery. In some cases, such as formation of new blood vessels in the treatment of coronary artery disease, you might want to speed up cell movement. On the other hand, you'd want to stop movement of cancer cells." Through a project with UNC's Center for Inflammatory Disorders, Jacobson's laboratory is now applying the photo-release technique to a major puzzle -- how blood cells can migrate through layers of other cells to sites of infection, Jacobson said.
Muscle physiologists studying calcium developed the laser method to uncage compounds some 10 years ago, he said. The UNC researchers also are developing a promising complementary technique for inactivating specific molecules responsible for making cells move and stick together. "No one had used the laser technique to manipulate protein levels in single, living cells before, and that's why this work is attracting a fair amount of attention from other scientists," the biologist said. "It has many possibilities."