A New Weapon in the War Against Cancer—Light Disrupts Cell Signals

Optogenetics may just hold the key to defeating this disease.

4. 28. 16 by Cecille De Jesus
Texas A&M
Image by Texas A&M

Light and Electric Signals

Years of research from Tufts University has finally yielded wonderful results: A method of stopping and reversing cancer growth by using light to manipulate electric signals in cells.

“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 research co-author Dany Adams.

Brook Chernet, lead author of the study, 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. Electric signals are produced when ions move into or out of cells when these ion channels open as a response to certain signals. Using optogenetics to control these ion channels, they can target the electric patterns in cells and control what they communicate to other cells, including division and development into tumor.

Cracking the Cancer Code

For cancer to spread, a form of communication happens between the cancer cells and healthy cells. According to senior and corresponding author Michael Levin, Ph.D., “discovering new ways to specifically control this bioelectrical signaling could be an important path towards new biomedical approaches to cancer.”


He adds, “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.”

In the past, optogenetics has been used to understand the brain and nervous system. And while this is the first time the technique was applied to cancer, the implications that electricity in the body has something to do with how diseases work will open up possibilities in understanding and treating diseases.

“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,” Levin added.

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