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Firefly-style bioluminescent probe monitors internal organs

Professional Engineering

Stock image. The probe replicates the process that causes bioluminescence in fireflies (Credit: Shutterstock)
Stock image. The probe replicates the process that causes bioluminescence in fireflies (Credit: Shutterstock)

The biochemical reaction that gives fireflies their glow has been replicated in a medical probe to help monitor the health of internal organs.

An international team of researchers at the University of Missouri developed the low cost, portable medical imaging device, which could reduce the need for more invasive testing.

Potential uses include developing better treatments for cancer, diabetes and infectious diseases, said corresponding author and associate professor of chemistry Elena Goun. It could also monitor various metabolic functions, such as gut health, in both animals and humans.

“This is the first example of a low cost, portable bioluminescence imaging tool that can be used in large non-transgenic animals such as dogs,” said Goun. “The mobility and cost-effectiveness of this technology also makes it a powerful tool for use in many areas of preclinical research, clinical research and diagnostics.”

Fireflies glow because of a reaction between oxygen and a chemical compound called luciferin, in the presence of an enzyme called luciferase. The new tool replicates that, first with the injection of a luciferin probe, followed by a biodegradable luciferase ‘plug’.

The level of biological activity in the targeted organ, such as liver toxicity, determines the amount of luciferin that is released into the bloodstream. Eventually, it reaches the luciferase, setting off the reaction that releases light.

A small light detector – about 10mm across – is placed on the surface of the body near the inserted probe to measure the intensity of the light. The level of detected light correlates with the amount of luciferin present, which scientists can use to determine the health of the targeted organ.

Co-author Jeffrey Bryan, a professor of veterinary oncology, said the technology would help medical professionals determine if a treatment is working inside an animal or human patient.

“This is a way we can monitor, in a minimally invasive way, a patient's physiological response to whatever treatment is administered to him or her,” said Professor Bryan. “Right now, most of the time we are looking for responses to treatment by asking the patient how they feel and then doing big, invasive, expensive tests to see if the treatment is working. Sometimes, that requires multiple procedures.

“But, if we can monitor for the desired effect in a minimally invasive manner, and continue monitoring the progress over a long time period with this technology, that would probably reduce the need for more invasive testing.”

The approach could also help reduce the number of dogs, cats and non-human primates being used in medical testing, Goun said.

The research was published in Nature Communications.

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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.


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