Lighting up cancer cells in a mouse

Cancer cells and the immune cells fighting cancer can now be observed in two different colours at the same time.

Two different mice carrying different luciferases exhibit bioluminescence that can be seen through tissues and blood and distinguished from the bioluminescence of the other mouse. Image credit: Cassie Stowe (CC BY 4.0)

Fireflies and some other insects glow to attract mates or prey. This so-called bioluminescence occurs when an enzyme called luciferase modifies the molecule luciferin, which can then emit bright yellow-green light. The gene that encodes the luciferase enzyme has been introduced into cells from mammals, including cancer cells. In the presence of luciferin, these cells begin to glow. The brightness of the bioluminescence depends on how many cancer cells are growing and dividing. The light is bright enough for the cancer cells making luciferase to be transplanted into mice so their behaviour can be examined.

However, blood and other tissues absorb the yellow-green light, making it hard to see the cancer cells deep within a mouse. To circumvent this problem, researchers designed a new type of luciferin, called infraluciferin, which emits red light that shines through blood and tissues. There are now also different variants of the luciferase enzyme, which act on infraluciferin to make different shades of red light.

Stowe et al. wanted to test if two different biological events happening at the same time could be observed using two shades of bioluminescent red in a single live mouse. First, a mixture of cancer cells containing two versions of luciferase were transplanted into mice. When the mice were then given infraluciferin, the two types of cancer cells could be distinguished based on the different shades of red bioluminescence. In a second experiment, Stowe et al. tracked the treatment of cancer cells with immune cells, by introducing a different version of luciferase into each of the two groups of cells. Over time, the red light produced by the immune cells grew stronger than that of the cancer cells, indicating that the number of cancer cells had decreased and that the treatment was effective.

Together, this work shows that it can be simple, cheap and efficient to observe more than one cell type, or even disease, in a living system. This technique may be used by scientists to study different diseases and treatment options in mice. Importantly, it will also reduce the number of animals used to do this research.