New Israeli imaging technique gives ‘unprecedented window’ into genes deep in body

Team at Weizmann Institute publishes study on method it says could help detect cancers, aid in organ transplants and help monitor cell therapy

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

An fMRI scanner. (CC-BY-SA, JanneM, Flickr)
An fMRI scanner. (CC-BY-SA, JanneM, Flickr)

Israeli scientists have developed an early version of an imaging technique, which they say will be able to give doctors an “unprecedented window into gene activity deep in the human body.”

A part of the DNA in every living cell, genes are responsible for encoding proteins, which in turn dictate cell function. The thousands of genes expressed in a cell determine what the cell does, which is why it can be important for the medical profession to get detailed information on genes, and more detailed information is thought to hold the key to various medical advances.

Currently, if physicians want to see which genes are encoding proteins and where, they are limited to methods that make genes visible by making them glow with fluorescent substances — but this works only on tissue on or close to the surface of the body, as they need to be able to see that glow. If physicians want to get a picture of gene activity deeper inside the body, they must use MRI scans, and those currently can only track one gene type at a time.

But on Monday, a research team from the Weizmann Institute of Science published a peer-reviewed study in the journal, Nature Biotechnology, outlining a new method that can simultaneously give a picture of many different gene types deep inside the body.

The new research was defined as a proof-of-concept and succeeded in tracking two genes simultaneously. It took place in mice, with lead researcher Dr. Amnon Bar-Shir stressing that it will take years before the method is tested in humans.

Bar-Shir’s method works by effectively dyeing the genes that doctors want to track, genetically engineering cells to cause sites in the body where specific genes are expressing to light up in a certain color.

Bar-Shir said the research could pave the way for MRI scans that provide complex insights on the activities of genes, which could help detect cancers, provide as-yet unavailable insights on how well the bodies of transplant recipients are accepting new organs, and monitor the success of cell therapy for cancer.

“MRI may one day be used to peer deep into the body over an extended period of time, to see what goes on in tissues without the need to remove them for study under a microscope,” he said. “Our method provides a major step in that direction.”

An image from the lab of Dr. Amnon Bar-Shir showing two different proteins expressed in a mouse brain are revealed by dual-color MRI. His special dying technique for genes enables MRI scans to be used to track multiple genes deep inside the body. (image courtesy of the Weizmann Institute of Science)

“This method will allow us to view in real-time MRI imaging of multiple genes deep in the body, and to see what is happening in the cells of interest,” Bar-Shir told The Times of Israel. “This could have a lot of value for medicine which hasn’t been possible until now, and will essentially give an unprecedented window on gene activity.

Dr. Amnon Bar-Shir (left) and Dr. Hyla Allouche-Arnon of the Weizmann Institute of Science (courtesy of the Weizmann Institute of Science)

Dr. Hyla Allouche-Arnon, a staff scientist in Bar-Shir’s lab, commented: “Gene expression lets us know what each cell is doing. Thanks to our method, MRI may now be applied by researchers in various fields to track the activity of all kinds of processes, for example, those involving different types of brain or immune cells.”

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