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Fluorescent Protein Holds Promise for Disease Treatment, Prevention

By John Ohab
Special to American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Jan. 9, 2009 – A fluorescent protein discovered in jellyfish has enabled scientists to visualize molecular and cellular events in real time, a leading U.S. biochemical researcher said yesterday.

Roger Tsien, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, won the 2008 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his role in developing the green fluorescent protein known as “GFP,” and spoke about his research to “Dot Mil Docs” listeners on BlogTalkRadio.com.

Using this protein, researchers now can track processes that were previously invisible, such as the cell-to-cell transmission of HIV and the activity of cancer cells in a developing tumor.

“GFP gave us the first way to link molecular biology to something we could see,” Tsein said. “When genes or proteins are made, scientists can now see directly when and where these molecular biological events occurred. We can actually watch processes in continuous movies inside living organisms.”

Tsien’s work with two colleagues, Martin Chalfie and Osamu Shimomura, has redefined molecular imaging and led to the development of tools for treating a variety of devastating illnesses. Tsien credited these achievements to his laboratory and collaborators, whose work over 40 years made GFP an irreplaceable tool in bioscience research. He said he was thrilled to be a part of the Nobel experience, which included talks at schools throughout Sweden and interesting discussions with fellow Nobel Laureates.

“The Nobel Prize is for Sweden what the Oscars or the Super Bowl are for Americans,” he said. “It’s on [their] national TV like the Oscar ceremony [here], and I got to sit next to the royal family. This is not something you experience in the ordinary research life.”

Currently, Tsien is investigating new ways to defeat breast cancer as part of the Breast Cancer Research Program, a congressionally directed medical research program funded by the Defense Department.

“We have funding to develop a new way of targeting synthetic molecules that could be used to identify tumors and eventually treat them,” Tsien said. “We wanted to do something that could be applied to real patients.”

Tsien has created a kind of “molecular nametag” that would be used for early identification of cancer cells in patients.

“This is a way to light up tumors for early detection and during surgeries, in particular, to help the surgeon hone in on a millimeter by millimeter scale exactly where the tumor cells are and where the boundary is for normal cells and actually do that at real time,” Tsien said. “We tried to use this biochemistry to actually make the tumor glow. That will guide the surgeon much more accurately than simply cutting out a hunk and waiting for the pathologist to declare whether you have a healthy margin around the dissected specimen.”

In addition, Tsien said, he hopes this research will provide tools for more focused chemo and radiation therapies and improve early detection of other diseases, such as stroke and atherosclerosis. He hopes to continue his pursuit of creative and innovative research endeavors that will ultimately impact human health.

“It’s a great thrill to win the Nobel Prize, but you have to come back to reality. I’ve still got the same research challenges and everyday [duties] as everybody else,” he said.

(John Ohab is attached to the New Media directorate of the Defense Media Activity.)

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