Light’s a total turnoff for protein

UNC-CHAPEL HILL (US) — Researchers have a new tool in the quest to learn how and why cancer spreads. The technique uses light to control the way proteins behave.

Developed by Klaus Hahn, the Thurman Professor of Pharmacology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the new method manipulates the activity of a protein at precise times and places within a living cell.

“The technology has exciting applications in basic research—in many cases the same protein can be either cancer-producing or beneficial, depending on where in a cell it is activated. Now researchers can control where that happens and study this heretofore inaccessible level of cellular control,” explains Hahn, a member of the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center.

“Because we first tested this new technology on a protein that initiates cell movement, we can now use light to control where and how cells move. This is quite valuable in studies where cell movement is the focus of the research, including embryonic development, nerve regeneration, and cancer metastasis,” he adds.

Hahn explains that the new technology is an advance over previous light-directed methods of cellular control that used toxic wavelengths of life, disrupted the cell membrane, or could switch proteins ‘on’ but not ‘off’.

The research appears in the Aug. 19 issue of the journal Nature. Scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research in Heidelberg, Germany contributed to the research, which was supported by the National Institutes of Health.

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