No fish story

UK Yorkshire Cancer Research Lab says luminous jellyfish cells help diagnose cancer

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YORKSHIRE, England—Scientists at the Yorkshire Cancer Research Laboratory at York University have quite a different kind of fish story to tell. The UK lab has developed a procedure aimed at using cells from luminous jellyfish to diagnose cancers deep within the human body, giving patients the best chance to receive early treatment and a greater chance at beating the disease.

The key to the process lies in the green fluorescent protein (GFP) that enables jellyfish to glow in the dark. Scientists say the glowing jellyfish can be targeted at cancer cells, allowing them to be spotted using a special camera.

The development of process is an extension of the work done by American chemist Dr. Roger Y. Tsien, who won a Nobel Prize in 2008 for taking luminous cells from the crystal jelly species of jellyfish and isolating the GFP.

The Yorkshire Cancer Research team has tweaked the original process by using an altered form of the protein so that it shows up as red or blue, rather than its original green. Color is important for these tests, as most colors in the spectrum are rapidly absorbed. Viruses containing the proteins are targeted to hone in on tiny bundles of cancer cells scattered throughout the body, which are too small to be seen by conventional scanning techniques. But the viruses grow and, while doing so, make more and more of the fluorescent proteins.

"When we heard about Dr. Tsien's work, we realized how that advance might be useful in the diagnosis of cancer," says York University team leader Prof. Norman Maitland. "Our process should allow earlier diagnosis to take place. X-rays, for example, struggle to penetrate well deeply into tissues and bone, so diagnosing dangerous microscopic bone cancer is difficult."

When a specially developed camera is switched on, the proteins "flare up, and you can see where the cancer cells are," says Maitland. "We call the process 'Virimaging.'"

"What we have developed is a process which involves inserting proteins derived from luminous jellyfish cells into human cancer cells," he says. "Then, when we illuminate the tissue, a special camera detects these proteins as they light up, indicating where the tumors are."

The technique is not without flaws, including the high cost and availability of the special camera. A company in the U.S. is the only one which has so far designed and built a camera system which allows the jellyfish proteins to be seen with the desired resolution so deep in the body. This kit costs about $780,000, but Maitland says he is raising the funds to buy one.

If the research continues to go according to plan, the method is expected to be ready for clinical trials within five years and could be ready for diagnostic use by clinicians a few years after that.

Maitland says the jellyfish therapy will revolutionize the way some cancers are diagnosed.

"Cancers deep within the body are difficult to spot at an early stage, and early diagnosis is critical for the successful treatment of any form of cancer," Maitland says.

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