April 26, 2016 / 2:35 PM / a year ago

Battling cancer with light

3 Min Read

(Reuters) - Researchers have for the first time used a technique called optogenetics to prevent and reverse cancer by manipulating electrical signals in cells.

Lead author on the study Brook Chernet injected frog embryos with two types of genes, an oncogene to predispose them to cancer and another gene to produce light sensitive "ion channels" in tumor-type cells.

Ion channels are passageways into and out of the cell that open in response to certain signals. When the channels are open, the movement of ions into or out of the cell creates an electrical signal.

The researchers were able to activate the channels on tumor-type cells by exposing the embryos to light. By activating the channels and adjusting the electrical signals in the cells, the team was able to both prevent and reverse tumor formation in 30 percent of cases, according to the study.

"You can turn on the light, in this case it's blue light and you blink this blue light at this tumor, I believe it's 24 hours, and the tumor goes away," said researcher Dany Adams, a co-author on the paper.

This latest success builds on years of research from Michael Levin's lab at Tufts University.

"We call this whole research program cracking the bioelectric code," said Levin, professor and chair of the Tufts Center for Regenerative and Developmental Biology.

By targeting the electrical patterns in cells, it's possible to control how fast they divide and what information they share with their neighbors, says Levin. 

"The idea is much like the brain when neuroscientists try to figure out the semantics of electrical states in the brain, we try to figure out how patterns are encoded in electrical states in the body," he added. 

The use of optogenetics to control ion channels has been an important research tool for neuroscientists studying the brain and nervous system. This is the first time the technique has been applied to cancer research.

"The electrical communication amongst cells is really important for tumor suppression. The bigger picture is to understand how these voltages are passed among cells and how they control the transfer of chemical signals among cells," Levin said.

"We need to crack this bioelectrical code. We really need to figure out how computations in tissues and decision making about pattern and cell behavior and so on are encoded in electrical signaling. That is sort of the next ten years," he added.  

The role of optogenetics in cancer treatment for humans is still unclear, but the underlying science of how electricity functions in the body has the potential to unlock new ways of treating all types of disease in years to come.  

The study was published in the journal Oncotarget last month.

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