Glowing Green Mice

These scary-looking mice aren’t a Halloween accessory but a medical advancement. They are displaying a green fluorescent protein (GFP), which won Osamu Shimomura, Martin Chalfie and Rodger Y. Tsien the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

This protein gives doctors a very clear way of seeing cells, and distinguishing between cancer cells and neurons (nerve cells) and blood vessels. This is really useful in the surgical removal of tumours: as most cancer treatments start by removing the tumour, improving this step makes a lot of sense!

Complete removal of all cancer cells from the body means a total cure for the patient. Unfortunately it’s very difficult to get every single cell and since tumours often grow on important tissues like nerves and blood vessels it’s imperative to avoid severing those during surgery. In the case of blood cells it’s even more vital as if some cancer cells get into the blood stream they can travel around the body and start secondary tumours elsewhere – this is known as metastasis and is the leading cause of death in cancer patients.

GFP Cells

The GFP can be used physically see tumour cells during surgery (by using a UV lamp) so that the surgeon can make sure every last bit is removed. By switching between different light sources the doctors can also highlight blood vessels and nerves to make sure these remain intact. It might look a bit like this:

Another great use of GFP is to illuminate artherosclerotic plaques – those things build up in the blood vessels which can cause heart attack or stroke if they rupture.

The glowing mice are from Mo Riza and the fluorescing cells are from F. Lamiot, both used and edited with thanks under Creative Commons Licenses.