When surgeons perform a complex surgery that calls for removing damaged or cancerous tissue, they need to navigate through nerves in order to avoid cutting into healthy tissue. They can do that if they can see the healthy tissue that they wish to avoid. An injectible fluorescent peptide that causes peripheral nerves to glow could help surgeons avoid them, explains Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News. That experimental technology was developed in part by Roger Tsien, the Nobel Prize-winning and thought leader in visualizing biology whose work helped change the way that researchers and clinicians see.
The proteins in biological systems can be difficult to see. Tsien’s work helped illuminate living cells in ways that researchers never saw them before. Now the world is hearing about Tsien is hearing about this life sciences pioneer for a different reason. Tsien, 64, unexpectedly died recently on a bicycle trail in Oregon. The exact cause of death has not yet been determined, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.
By his own admission, Tsien took a visual approach to biology. The professor of pharmacology, chemistry, and biochemistry, at the University of California, San Diego is one of the inventors of a technology called green fluorescent protein (GFP), which is used to tag and observe proteins in cells. Tsien worked with two other researchers to develop the technology. Osamu Shimomura, the emeritus professor at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass. identified the protein in jellyfish that glows green under blue to ultraviolet light and showed how GFP was possible, according to Xconomy. Martin Chalfie, a Columbia University biological sciences professor who devised ways to link GFP to other proteins, showing how it could be used as a biological marker. Tsien’s contribution was finding ways to make GFP glow more brightly, consistently, and in different fluorescent colors, which enabled researchers to track several different cellular processes simultaneously.
For his work on GFP, Tsien shared in the 2008 Nobel Prize in chemistry. After winning the prize, he told the San Diego Union Tribune that he probably would not have pursued this work had he been colorblind. “I’ve always been attracted to colors,” he said. “Color helps make the world more interesting and endurable.”
Despite his accomplishment, the Nobel laureate was not one to rest on his laurels. After winning the Nobel Prize, Tsien told Xconomy that he was like the 19th century explorer and mapmaker John C. Fremont, “who finds the pass but who is not the homesteading type.” Tsien went on to co-found Avelas Biosciences, which developed fluorescent proteins that help identify cancer cells and is now in clinical trials for breast cancer. He later returned to UC San Diego to develop the injectible peptide being studied as a way to help illuminate the nerves that surgeons wish to avoid when surgically removing cancerous tissue. Tsien won’t see how this biochemistry research helps patients. But if the technology he researched with Avelas and started at UC San Diego makes it through clinical trials and FDA approval, it will help clinicians see cancer surgery in a completely different way.
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