Researchers have successfully prevented and reversed cancer in frogs by manipulating electrical signals in cells using light. Ben Gruber reports.
STORY: Dany Adams is collecting frog embryos for an experiment that might one day re-define future cancer treatment. She's injecting this embryo with two types of genes - an oncogene to give it cancer and another gene that produces light sensitive proteins that control electrical patterns in the cells that make up the embryo. To stop the cancer, Adams simply shines a light. SOUNDBITE (English) DANY ADAMS, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR AND RESEARCHER, TUFTS UNIVERSITY, SAYING: "You can turn on the light, in this case its blue light and you blink this blue light at this tumor, I believe it's 24 hours, and the tumor goes away." She's building on years of research from Michael Levin's lab at Tufts University. Levin says that by targeting the cells' electrical patterns, it's possible to control how fast they divide and what information they share with their neighbors. SOUNDBITE (English) MICHAEL LEVIN, PROFESSOR AND CHAIR OF TUFTS CENTER FOR REGENERATIVE AND DEVELOPMENTAL BIOLOGY, SAYING: "We call this whole research program cracking the bioelectric code. 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." To kill tumors in the newly hatched tadpoles, Adams is utilizing a technique called optogenetics. The light sensitive gene allows her to control a cell's polarization, either to prevent cancer or reverse it. The experiment had a success rate of 30 percent. SOUNDBITE (English) DANY ADAMS, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR AND RESEARCHER, TUFTS UNIVERSITY, SAYING: "Those are really powerful components of generating cancer so for us to be able to override the oncogene message using light is just an extraordinary thing." SOUNDBITE (English) MICHAEL LEVIN, PROFESSOR AND CHAIR OF TUFTS CENTER FOR REGENERATIVE AND DEVELOPMENTAL BIOLOGY, SAYING: "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." The role of optogenetics in cancer treatment for humans is unclear -- but the underlying science of how electricity functions in the body has the potential to unlock new ways of treating many types of disease in years to come.