Glowing protein raises cancer hopes


A group of Japanese researchers said they have developed the brightest luminescent protein ever, raising hopes of advances in technologies to detect cancer at an early stage.

Fluorescent proteins have already been used in direct observation of biological processes and cancer diagnosis, but the conventional methods can’t be applied universally to tissue studies because such proteins need to be illuminated by external light, such as ultraviolet rays, which would alter the cellular environment and may eventually lead to cell death.

Cell imaging using natural luminescent proteins, such as one found in fireflies, is impractical because light emitted by these proteins is too weak. The body to be studied must be anesthetized to keep it in the same position for a long period in order to locate the light and hence the targeted cells.

But the study team, led by Takeharu Nagai, a professor at Osaka University’s Institute of Scientific and Industrial Research, said the newly created protein, dubbed Nano-lantern, emits light 10 times stronger than that of conventional photoproteins.