Seeing the shimmer of biology in action  pg. 8

There are current attempts to improve the spatial resolution of bioluminescence imaging by collecting data at different wavelengths of light, taking a surface map of the animal and then computing the three-dimensional source distribution, Jansen says. Other attempts include using a rotating stage to image the animal from different planes.

Absorption of light by tissues poses another problem for bioluminescence. Although it is a very useful imaging technique for small animals, where it has to travel only a short distance to reach the surface, it’s not likely to translate to humans except in niche areas. One of those areas could be encapsulated cell therapies—therapeutic cells, like glucose-sensing, insulin-producing beta cells that are “contained” within a membrane of some sort and implanted just under the skin.

“Developing encapsulated cell therapies will be greatly enhanced by building into those cells markers that tell us if the cells are alive and doing what they’re supposed to be doing,” says Stanford’s Contag. “Since the cells would be under the skin, bioluminescence imaging should work. I think that’s a perfect scenario for its first clinical application.”

Another place bioluminescence imaging might find clinical use is in breast cancer detection, Contag says. Proteins tagged with luminescent markers would have the advantage of great signal to noise for detecting very small numbers of cells.

“The question is, is it going to be better than anything else out there, and we won’t really know until someone tries it,” Contag says.

Whether or not bioluminescence imaging makes it to the clinic, “my guess is that optical imaging in small animals will become the mainstay for many laboratories using animal models,” Contag says, “and bioluminescence will be one of the cornerstone technologies for developing new ways to treat disease and to visualize biology as it occurs in the living body.”

That’s bright stuff for those flashing summertime lights.

Fighting infection—the glow from within
Bioluminescence imaging reveals inflammation-related gene expression in mice infected with the pathogen Pseudomonas aeruginosa.  The images show increasing intensities of bioluminescence, from deep blue to bright white, in mice before injection of the pathogen (A), and 24 hours after injection of increasing doses of P. aeruginosa: (B), (C) and (D).  Studies like this could lead to new treatments aimed at augmenting the host defense, particularly in critically ill patients.
From Sadikot RT, et. al.; The Jornal of Immunology, 2004, 172:1801-1808.  © 2004, American Association of Immunologists, Inc.

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