Awards Database

Cottrell Scholar Awards - 2014

Jennifer A. Prescher

Assistant Professor of Chemistry, University of California, Irvine

Expanding the Bioluminescent Toolbox for Visualizing Metastatic Disease

Prescher is attempting to develop new imaging probes for revealing how cancer spreads in living organisms.

The process is called metastases, and it begins with very few cells that escape a primary tumor and ultimately infiltrate other tissues. These events are difficult to study in real time; as a result, most metastases are detected at relatively late stages of the disease. New tools capable of resolving when and where tumor cells migrate could help to reduce cancer deaths.

Prescher said, “We will develop bioluminescent tools that produce light only when two distinct cell types come into close proximity – that is, when tumor cells infiltrate distant tissues. These tools will enable global surveys of cancer spread and will provide some of the first noninvasive views of metastases in the body.” 

Bioluminescence is the emission of light by a living organism. The ocean depths are inhabited by numerous bioluminescent species; fireflies are an example on land. They produce light when the enzyme luciferase acts on another chemical compound in their bodies, luciferin.

“Luciferase-luciferin pairs can be introduced into non-luminescent cells and used to track cell movements over time, Prescher predicts. “We aim to preferentially illuminate metastases by designing methods that “turn on” photon (light) production when tumor cells enter a secondary site. Our approach relies on the local release of luciferin by “activator” cells, and its use by luciferase-expressing “reporter” cells.”

In other words, when treated cancer cells arrive at various points in the body, the light switch will be flipped automatically.

The Cottrell Scholars Award will also fund her efforts to develop a new major in Chemical Biology to prepare students for modern research and career. Prescher is working to expand UC Irvine’s introductory chemical biology lecture course and developing cross-disciplinary experiments for undergraduate laboratories. She is also launching an innovative semin

Return to list