Using Enzymes From Fireflies To Illuminate Cures for Cancer

SRI International researchers are testing thousands of drug combinations in Menlo Park to find custom therapies.

No longer are fireflies something that your brother squishes on your shirt to make you nauseous.

Lidia Sambucetti, Ph.D, senior director in the biosciences department at , and her team of researchers are using them to determine if the drug combinations that they’re researching are effectively neutralizing cancerous cell growth. Specifically, their enzymes.

“The sensitivity is exceptional, as human organisms don’t make light,” Sambucetti said, as she took Patch through a tour of the Biosciences department’s newest endeavors.

The National Cancer Institute has asked SRI International researchers to take 100 FDA approved cancer drugs and combine them to see if they can identify customized ways to treat cancer.  She estimates that the combinations will result in 3.5 million data points, after they’ve tried 5,000 different drug medleys.

“The end point is to stop cell growth in the dish, which will enable us to determine if any combinations are more active than a single agent alone,” Sambucetti said.  These new agents will qualify for a follow up and then later tested in human tumor xenograft models to find out why they worked.

Since November of 2010, the team has been using firefly enzymes to tell if the cell growth in their test arrays has stopped. They determine this by measuring Adenosine TriPhosphate production, which is a fundamental energy unit that organisms produce when they’re alive.

“When it’s killed, production of ATP stops, and this is visible in a firefly when it no longer makes light,” Sambucetti said.

The team is currently gathering the data produced and plans to analyze the data for the next year or so.

“The significant advantage of using this approach is that once new effective combinations are identified, we can move quickly into clinical testing, since we’re working with drugs that are already approved,” she said.


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