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Firefly protein lets researchers monitor molecule linked to cancer

Scientists have used a glowing protein from fireflies to observe the activity of a molecule that is an important target for new drugs to treat cancer, autoimmune diseases and several other disorders.

The target molecule, known as IKK (for IKappa kinase), regulates processes that can trigger dramatic changes in cellular physiology. Scientists have linked these changes to many different disorders.

"Our new system allows researchers to monitor whether drugs for these conditions are hitting this exact molecular target in cell culture and laboratory animals," says senior investigator David Piwnica-Worms, M.D., Ph.D., professor of molecular biology and pharmacology and of radiology.

Piwnica-Worms and lead author Shimon Gross, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow, measured light from the firefly protein, luciferase, to monitor IKK activity in tumor cells and inflamed liver cells in live mice. They also showed that the technique can greatly reduce the costs of tests that establish the best dosages for drugs that target IKK. Their results appear in the August 2005 issue of Nature Methods.

IKK stands at a pivot point in the middle of an important set of linked chain reactions known as the NF-KappaB pathway. The pathway can start at many different receptors on cell surfaces; its finish changes the activity levels of varying genes. The result, according to Piwnica-Worms, is that the potential reaction patterns in the NF-KappaB pathway form an hourglass-like shape, fanning out among many options at the start, narrowing in the middle, and again fanning out among many options at the end.

"At the waist of that hourglass is IKK," he explains. "This appears to put it in a position to be the key regulator of the pathway, and that has made it a subject of great interest both from the perspective of understanding how this pathway works and from that of developing new drugs for conditions that involve this pathway. "

Piwnica-Worms' laboratory has pr
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Source:Washington University School of Medicine


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