Nobel Prize winner delivers keynote at MU science symposium

Tuesday, March 1, 2011 | 8:34 p.m. CST

COLUMBIA — Roger Tsien is not a brain surgeon, but he did win a Nobel Prize for developing a process that has the potential to make brain surgeons better at their jobs.

Tsien, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, gave the keynote speech at the Translational Neuroscience Symposium at MU on Tuesday afternoon. He gave his speech before a full house in the Bond Life Sciences Center's Monsanto Auditorium, with about 30 more people listening in a spillover room.

The speech highlighted the most recent developments in the research that won Tsien the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2008 — the uses of fluorescent proteins to see cellular processes that would otherwise be invisible.

Tsien said the research is "not yet feasible in humans" because human cells are too thick and the process would require gene-transferring. If that hurdle could be jumped, fluorescent proteins could be used to guide surgeries to cut out tumors, allow for earlier detection of cancer and show where plaque is in arteries.

By staining the tumor green and neurons blue and overlaying those images with a video during surgery, scientists were able to more easily remove the tumor and avoid the neurons. Tsien showed a video of his assistant using that technique to remove a tumor from a mouse to demonstrate how easy it was and how much it increased her confidence.

The studies done with mice showed that using this technique reduced the reappearance of tumors and increased the success of the surgery, Tsien said.

Tsien enlivened his speech with several interesting comparisons. He called proteases — proteins that can break down other proteins — in cancer cells "molecular machetes" because they allow cancer cells to cut through healthy tissue. It is this ability, he said, that allows cancer to spread to other parts of the body, which can lead to death.

At another point, Tsien compared adding fluorescence to a name tag sticker. He said that adding a negative charge to the fluorescence allowed him to control where the fluorescence attached itself, much like the backing on a name tag stops it from sticking until it is removed. In the mice, the tumor had a substance that cut the negative charges and lit them up.

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