Scientists Can Now See Cancer ‘Glowing’ Within the Body


A new development may now allow doctors and scientists to see how cancer is able to spread. This research could shed light on how cancer moves in the body, in both a literal and figurative sense.

Using fluorophores, scientists have found a way to illuminate the microRNA that can lead to cancer. The fluorophores adhere to the microRNA and cause them to glow, emitting light on a different wavelength. This allows researchers to track the microRNA and follow it, providing insight into how they become dysregulated.

This image shows the trajectories of miRNA molecules around a cell’s dark nucleus. Credit: Nils Walter/University of Michigan, Michigan News

“In this paper, we’ve shown that we have the tools with which we can actually see single miRNAs in cells, and we can look at their movement from nucleus to cytoplasm and cytoplasm to nucleus,” said Nils Walter, professor of Chemistry and Biophysics at the University of Michigan and corresponding author of the report.

The reason microRNA are important is because they can become dysregulated, and this is what leads to cancer or other disorders. RNA responds to DNA and builds proteins by directing cells. RNA strands can break down into what is called microRNA, or miRNA for short. These actually prevent RNA from producing protein as they should, and when they do not function properly, disorders can occur.

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“These RNAs that don’t code protein, or are ‘noncoding,’ regulate everything that goes on in the cell, and when they become dysregulated — if they are in the wrong concentration or expressed at the wrong time — typically bad things, like cancer, happen,” Walter said.

However, tracking miRNA has been difficult thus far due to the speed at which they move. Scientists found that once miRNA began acting regularly, they slowed down and were somewhat trackable. When the fluorophore is able to be attached and the miRNA begin to glow, scientists are able to follow their movement using a high-powered microscope.

This development allows researchers to follow the response of miRNA to certain drugs and treatment to gauge their effectiveness, as well as predict and potentially quell the spread of cancer within the body. In a surprising find, the researchers also discovered miRNA within the nucleus of a cell, when it was previously thought to only function in the cytoplasm. They are looking to further undergo research into this area to reveal the function of miRNA within the nucleus.

The report was written by a team from the University of Michigan and published in Cell Reports.

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