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Bright idea Swiss scientists use firefly’s light for medical use

© 2015 EPFL

Swiss researchers have harnessed the enzyme that makes fireflies glow to diagnose medical conditions. This technique is cheaper, simpler and more accurate than other methods.

Due to the complexity of the human body, diagnosing diseases is often time-consuming and expensive. But thanks to a new breakthrough by researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL), spotting certain molecules in a patient’s body – those found in tumour cells, for example – could be as easy as making them light up.

The key to this solution is found naturally in the abdomen of insects from the family Lampyridae - more commonly known as fireflies for their bioluminescent back ends. Alberto Schena and Rudolf Griss, researchers in the lab of Kai Johnsson in the Institute of Chemical Sciences and Engineering at EPFL, discovered that they could attach a special chemical tag to luciferase, the enzyme responsible for the firefly’s light.

The tag, which temporarily prevents luciferase from glowing, is designed to locate and latch on to a target protein in the body. When this protein has been found, the chemical tag binds to it, releasing its grip on the luciferase. Once the tag abandons the luciferase for the target protein, the luciferase is again able to light up.

Because this signal can be easily seen by the naked human eye, the new method eliminates the need for costly measurements or equipment. The method is also flexible: the combination of the luciferase enzyme with an interchangeable chemical tag creates a new kind of biosensor that could be adapted for many different uses.

“You can think of the tagged luciferase as a cyborg molecule - half bio, half synthetic,” said Johnsson. “With this chemical trick, all we have to worry about is designing an appropriate tag that can recognize the target protein.”

The research, which was published in Nature Communications on Wednesday, is also the focus of Schena and Griss’ new EPFL startup, Lucentix.

swissinfo.ch and agencies


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