A new study has found that by using optogenetics researchers have managed to slow down cancer growth rate by controlling electrical signals in cells. Optogenetics is a technique in which light is used to control cell functionality in tissues and organs. The study was published in the scientific journal Oncotarget in the month of March this year. The study’s success is credited to years of research by Michael Levin’s lab at Tufts University. The study was funded by the G Harold and Leila Y Mathers Charitable Foundation.

Light Helps Fight Cancer — How Does It Work?

The study’s lead author, Brook Chernet injected two types of genes into frog embryos, a gene that produced light sensitive ion channels in cancer causing cells and an oncogene which is a gene that increases cancer risk. The researchers projected light on the embryos which activated ion channels in the tumor cells. Ion channels are proteins that shape ion flow through cell membranes using electrical signals. By using the light, they activated the ion channels and changed the electrostatic polarity on tumor cells, hence managed to both prevent and regress tumor growth in 30% of the cases.

Frogs provide a more realistic model to observe cancer growth because the tumors grown in frogs have similar properties to cancer cells grown in mammals, including vascular growth, rapid cell division and they have unusually high positive internal voltage. Healthier cells, on the other hand, have a negative internal charge. Hence, tumors can be detected using their inner electrostatic charge.

Dany Adams, a researcher and the study’s coauthor, said, “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.”

Mr Levin said, “We call this whole research program cracking the bioelectric code. By targeting the electrical patterns in cells, it’s possible to control how fast they divide and what information they share with their neighbors. 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,” he added.

Future Of Cancer Research

This study has proved the success of using optogenetics to cure cancer, and is the first time optogenetics were used to study cancer growth. Previously, optogenetics were used by neuroscientists for studying the nervous system. “The 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,” Levin said. “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,” he added.

Other interesting and innovative solutions are being sought by researchers in the fight against cancer. University of Manchester’s Professor Richard Edmondson is using big data to help decide whether to surgically operate a cancer patient or not. He’s in charge of developing a computer application that will analyze data of cancer patients such as health conditions and symptoms of the disease to enable better decision making regarding surgical operations.

Another cancer research has taken inspiration from puzzle pieces as University of Hull’s Professor Vesselin Paulonov researches to combat acute myeloid leukemia (AML). Myeloid cells are larger and irregularly shaped compared to white blood cells. So they reproduce the myeloid cell shapes onto a large plastic sheet using highly specialized equipment. The next step involves a process similar to dialysis. Blood is drawn from the patient and passed over the sheet where the team thinks that the cancer cells will get stuck in the sheet, hence, removed from the blood.

Dr Stefan Bartzsch, from the Institute of Cancer Research in London, is looking to develop super thin radiobeams to treat cancer. Thinner radiobeams have been proven to be as effective in treating cancer in animals as regular radiobeams. The only drawback is that it will take a lot of funding and time to create specialized machinery that will produce such thin microbeams. Dr Bartzsch is looking to make cheaper and smaller equipment that will be capable of doing this.

Professor Eleanor Stride and her team at the University of Oxford has taken inspiration from carbonated beverages. As tumors grow, they deoxygenize surrounding tissues, forcing cancer cells to become more resistive to treatment. So she has come up with a solution to oxygenate cancer cells by injecting nanobubbles into the tumor’s bloodstream, so they become more responsive to the treatment.

This goes to show how much research is being done in the field of cancer and optogenetics is just the start of many promising projects that we will get to see in the near future.