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Fireflies light the way

Queen’s researcher develops biosensor that uses firefly enzyme to monitor cancer cell activity.

Queen’s University researcher Xiaolong Yang and his research team have developed a light emission-based biosensor that uses firefly luciferase (the enzyme that allows fireflies to light up) to monitor cancer cell activity and help find new ways to fight the spread of cancer.

Research has previously shown that changes in Hippo signaling proteins may be responsible for cancer development but there is currently no system to quantify how these proteins change in cancers. This breakthrough discovery could improve cancer diagnosis and treatment.

Xiaolong Yang (Pathology and Molecular Medicine) has developed a new biosensor that monitors cancer cell activity.

“Our labs have recently shown that aberrant changes in a group of proteins called the Hippo signaling pathway may be involved in cancer development,” says Dr. Yang. “In this study, by using the luciferase enzyme extracted from fireflies as a reporter, we have created a new biosensor tool that allows researchers to measure the activity of the Hippo signaling pathway protein in cancers in real-time.”

Dr. Yang adds that studies show that the Hippo signaling proteins are critical for cancer angiogenesis, a process by which tumours make blood vessels during their growth and spread.

“Almost all people have family members or friends who are diagnosed with or die of cancer,” says Dr. Yang. “Our new tool allows us to detect cancerous cells’ behavior in a new way and will help future development of therapeutic drugs for preventing the most devastating and drug-resistant cancers from growing or spreading.”

More than 90 per cent of cancer deaths are due to spreading of cancer cells to other organs of the body (metastasis) at late stages of cancer progression. Unfortunately, there is currently no cure for treating metastatic cancers. Dr. Yang’s novel research findings provide new evidence that targeting the Hippo signaling protein is very effective in cutting the nutrient supply of cancer cells through inhibiting blood vessel formation. This discovery may provide new hope for treating metastatic cancer patients for successful cancer treatment in the future.

Moreover, since defects in angiogenesis also play important roles in many other diseases such as age-related macular degeneration, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes, the new discovery may also provide a new way of fighting these diseases that affect the lives of millions of people around the world.

Working with Dr. Yang on the research were PhD candidates Taha Azad, Helena J. Janse van Rensburg, and Ben Yeung, and research associate Yawei Hao. The research was published in Nature Communications.