Register for an account


Enter your name and email address below.

Your email address is used to log in and will not be shared or sold. Read our privacy policy.


Website access code

Enter your access code into the form field below.

If you are a Zinio, Nook, Kindle, Apple, or Google Play subscriber, you can enter your website access code to gain subscriber access. Your website access code is located in the upper right corner of the Table of Contents page of your digital edition.


Firefly Rx

How your favorite summertime insect may be illuminating drug research.

By Brad KlozaAugust 10, 2006 5:00 AM


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

The mini-pyrotechnics of fireflies could prove to be lightning in a bottle for drug researchers, providing a way to speed up the long and arduous process of developing and testing new drugs.

Washington University (St. Louis) radiologist David Piwnica-Worms and his team are using a firefly protein to make mouse cells glow when triggered by a drug. When they sedate the mice and put them under a special camera, they can see changes in the glow in real time. In the experiment they put the glowing protein into tumor cells treated by an experimental cancer drug.

"You're actually looking at how much of the drug got in and affected the target protein, because that protein is now fused to the glowing firefly protein," he says. "By following the light coming out, you can very sensitively follow, over time, different doses of the drug and know how long it takes and how much it takes to get into the tumor. So you have a much more precise tool for understanding the molecular targeting of the drug."

As he and his team reported in the journal Nature Methods, the new technique could make tests of many kinds of new drugs faster and more efficient. And the technique does not harm test subjects.

"You can just image the animals over and over and over again for hours and hours and days on end... at any type of time interval that you want," he says.

Piwnica-Worms' study on the cancer drug took five days and required only 30 mice. He says it normally might have taken six months and 300 mice.

"A traditional way of studying that would be to [give] the animal with a certain amount of the drug and then wait a number of days or weeks and see how the tumor grew," he says, "but you still never knew if the drug was acting on the tumor in the way you'd designed it to. The end result — the tumor stopped growing — is helpful; but you'd still have to wait days and weeks to find that out ... and of course you have to destroy the cells or the animal in order to study these particular proteins."

The researchers recently published a similar paper in the journal Analytical Chemistry, but with proteins from click beetles, which glow red and green. Combined with the yellow of fireflies, these extra colors give them the option of watching a drug's effect on several different areas at one time.

3 Free Articles Left

Want it all? Get unlimited access when you subscribe.


Already a subscriber? Register or Log In

Want unlimited access?

Subscribe today and save 70%


Already a subscriber? Register or Log In