Researchers at UTMB have been awarded a $578,000 grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas to institute a fluorescent imaging research program that detects cancer cells that have been engineered to glow in the dark so they can be precisely pinpointed as they grow and spread throughout the body.

Dr. Massoud Motamedi, director of UTMB's Center for Biomedical Engineering, and Dr. Lisa Elferink, director of research for UTMB's Cancer Center, received a grant to institute a bioflourescent imaging program.

The cells will emit light spontaneously, similar to a firefly, when faced with ultraviolet or near-infrared light. The emitted light will be collected by a highly sensitive camera that can detect and track the cancerous cells for later evaluation and possibly help develop new drugs for cancer treatment.

The grant will enable UTMB researchers to track cancer progression of many types over time in experimental mice whose cancer cells have been made phosphorescent — either through molecular imaging dyes or genetic modifications — when viewed through a new photo-imaging machine.

Grant funds are being used to purchase this new machine — the IVIS Spectrum — that will enable UTMB researchers not only to step up the pace of their cancer research, but vastly decrease the number of experimental animals needed for each research project.

Since the IVIS machine can track cancer progression in live animals instead of post mortem, far fewer animals will be needed for each research project. For a typical six-month project in which 85 experimental animals would normally have been used, now only five animals will be needed.

The machine, which is about the size and weight of an apartment-sized refrigerator, has just arrived on campus. UTMB researchers are lining up to learn how to use it. There are already 13 funded UTMB cancer research projects that will use the IVIS machine to carry out their work.

"Optical molecular techniques such as bioluminescence and fluorescence imaging have become essential tools for studying preclinical cancer models, providing unique insights into disease pathogenesis, drug development, and effects of therapy," said Lisa Elferink, director of research for UTMB’s Cancer Center, who spearheaded UTMB’s application for the CPRIT grant funds.

According to the grant’s principal investigator, Massoud Motamedi, director of UTMB’s Center for Biomedical Engineering, the new instrument will also help UTMB recruit new faculty in cancer research and vaccine development for cancer prevention and at the same time to retain its best investigators. These are important considerations as UTMB continues to move forward in its development of a state-of-the-art comprehensive cancer center.

Departments that plan to use the new device in their research include otolaryngology, radiation oncology, surgery, pharmacology, neuroscience and cell biology, biochemistry and molecular biology. All of the research projects are looking at different aspects of signaling in cancer and how signaling promotes cancer progress — especially pancreatic, breast, lymph, colon and head and neck cancer.

“This new system significantly expands UTMB’s research imaging resources,” said Motamedi. “With this now in place, UTMB’s already extensive imaging research resources are now truly state-of-the-art, rivaling any such research facility in the world.”