Seeing is Believing: How NanoLuc® Luciferase Illuminates Virus Infections

Artists interpretation of in vivo imaging of viral infections in mice using NanoLuc luciferase.

Wearing blue surgical gowns and white respirator hoods, research scientist Pradeep Uchil and post-doctoral fellow Irfan Ullah carry an anesthetized mouse to the lab’s imaging unit. Two days ago, the mouse was infected with a SARS-CoV-2 virus engineered to produce a bioluminescent protein. After an injection of a bioluminescence substrate, a blue glow starts to emanate from within the mouse’s nasal cavity and chest, visible to the imaging unit’s camera and Uchil’s eyes.

“We were never able to see this kind of signal with retrovirus infections.” Uchil is a research scientist at the Yale School of Medicine whose work focuses on the in vivo imaging of retroviral infections. Normally, the mouse would have to be sacrificed and “opened up” for viral bioluminescent signals from internal tissues to be imaged directly.

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LncRNA: The Long and Short of “Junk RNA”

The Central Dogma and Junk DNA

lncRNA, long noncoding RNA

On September 19, 1957, Francis Crick delivered a lecture during a symposium at University College London, titled “Protein Synthesis”. The lecture was published a year later (1); in it, Crick quotes his colleague James Watson as saying, “The most significant thing about the nucleic acids is that we don’t know what they can do.” In contrast, Crick argued that proteins play a central, indispensable role as enzymes within the cell that catalyze a variety of chemical reactions. He believed that the main role of genetic material was to control the synthesis of proteins, although the mechanism of that process was not known.

Crick’s hypothesis came to be known as the central dogma of molecular biology, and it was immortalized in his hand-written notes that described the flow of information from DNA to RNA to proteins. This achievement was all the more remarkable, considering that messenger RNAs were completely unknown at that time, and very little was known about how the cellular translational machinery functioned within the cytoplasm to synthesize proteins. Although the later discovery of retroviruses appeared to challenge Crick’s central dogma, he explained quite succinctly that his original statement had simply been misunderstood, and that information could flow in both directions between DNA and RNA (2).

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Permeability Possibilities with the New NanoClick Assay

Peptide Predicament

For decades now, peptides have been a molecule of interest for drug discovery research. Peptides offer a unique opportunity for therapeutic intervention that closely mimics natural pathways, as many physiological functions utilize peptides as intrinsic signaling molecules. Macrocyclic peptides, in particular, have recently proven to be promising candidates for targeting intracellular protein–protein interactions (PPIs), an attractive but hard-to-reach therapeutic target for conventional small molecule and biological drugs.  

As with any opportunity, there are also challenges that accompany the peptide therapeutic development. Peptide ligands typically have poor membrane permeability, so thus far the majority of peptide therapeutics predominantly target extracellular proteins and receptors. There are also multiple mechanisms for cellular uptake of peptides, including both energy-dependent routes like endocytosis, and energy-independent, like passive diffusion or membrane translocation. Multiple mechanisms of cellular uptake paired with poor permeability makes engineering enough membrane permeability into peptides in order to advance them through drug discovery pipelines extremely difficult.  

There are other factors to consider in developing peptide therapeutics, such as solubility, protein/lipid binding and stability, which can also have an affect on the overall cytosolic concentration and, ultimately impact the ability of the peptide to effectively engage its desired intracellular targets.

With so many challenging factors, the ability to have a predictive, high-throughput assay to assess cell permeability, independent of the mechanism(s) of entry, would be a critical and invaluable tool to support peptide drug discovery research.

In a recent study published in ACS Chemical Biology, researchers sought to develop such a tool, and demonstrated a new application for Promega NanoBRET™ technology: the NanoClick assay.

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World Firefly Day: Shining More Light on Glo-ing Innovations

On July 3rd and 4th, 2021, we celebrate World Firefly Day. This year, 2021, marks 30 years of luciferase products firefly luciferase vectors and Luciferase Assay System. These tools are key in advancing bioluminescent technology. To celebrate this day, we want to highlight some innovations that have been made possible with these tools.

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Bringing Cutting Edge Technologies to Academic Researchers Through the Academic Access Program

This post was written by guest blogger Iain Ronald, Director Academic/Government Market Segment at Promega.

My back story is similar to most of you reading this blog, high school education, undergraduate degree then onto a postgraduate degree. However, over 25 years ago during my undergraduate study, I was fortunate enough to work in the lab of Professor Ray Waters studying DNA damage in S. cerevisiae as a model organism and at the time PCR was cutting-edge technology and the PCR license was in full effect. However, there was one company that was fighting the good fight to democratize PCR for the good of the scientific community, Promega.

I became enamored with Promega then, and the next steps in my career were taken with a view to working at this company who, for all intents and purposes, seemed to really care about the progression of science beyond self-aggrandizement.

Now that I am working at Promega in a position where I can bring benefit to our academic community, I have pondered what I can do to equal the disruptive attitude I observed in this company all those years ago when they were fighting the then “big tech” for the enablement of the scientific community. 

Reporter bioassays are one of hte many offerings of the academic access program.
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How Promega Helped Our Lab Scale Up Drug Discovery for Bloodborne Pathogens

This blog was written by Sebastien Smick, Research Technician in Dr. Jacquin Niles’ laboratory at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

Our lab is heavily focused on the basic biology and drug discovery of the human bloodborne pathogen Plasmodium falciparum, which causes malaria. We use the CRISPR/Cas9 system, paired with a TetR protein fused to a native translational repressor alongside a Renilla luciferase reporter gene, to conditionally knock down genes of interest to create modified parasites. We can then test all kinds of compounds as potential drug scaffolds against these gene-edited parasites. Our most recent endeavor, one made possible by Promega, is a medium-low throughput robotic screening pipeline which compares conditionally-activated or-repressed parasites against our dose-response drug libraries in a 384-well format. This process has been developed over the past few years and is a major upgrade for our lab in terms of data production. Our researchers are working very hard to generate new modified parasites to test. Our robots and plate readers rarely get a day’s rest!

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Toxicity Studies in Organoid Models: Developing an Alternative to Animal Testing

Alternatives to animal testing have long been explored when it comes to studying the safety of various chemical compounds for use in food, medicine and cosmetics. With the advent of three-dimensional (3D) cell culture to create organoids, more relevant human organoid models are being explored as one way to provide safe and effective compound testing while minimizing the need for testing in animals. The international project Physiologically Anchored Tools for Realistic nanOmateriaL hazard aSsessment (PATROLS) led by the Swansea University Medical School aims to establish a battery of innovative, next-generation safety testing tools that can more accurately predict the effects of engineered nanomaterial (ENM) exposure in humans and the environment.

One project being researched by Samantha Llewellyn, a research assistant at Swansea University, is developing predictive physiologically relevant 3D liver models for ENM safety assessment. By having a model to evaluate realistic ENM exposures, a researcher can study liver function, hepatic metabolism and microtissue cell viability after acute (24 hours) or prolonged (several days) exposure. A microtissue model for assessing ENM hepatotoxicity needs to mimic primary hepatocytes and be amenable to assays used to test cell viability and metabolism.

The right tools for testing this 3D liver model include the bioluminescent-based CellTiter-Glo® 3D Viability and P450-Glo® Assays. When creating organoids, having reagents that can penetrate to the center of the dense and complex 3D liver spheroids is important so that the cell viability readout encompasses the entire microtissue. The CellTiter-Glo® 3D Viability Assay accomplishes this task, providing accurate assessment of 3D tissue cell health. Measuring cytochrome P450 (CYP450) activity is necessary for studying liver function. The P450-Glo® Assays have the flexibility to assess CYP450 activity while preserving the liver spheroids; thus, researchers can gather more data from a single experiment.

The importance of Samantha Llewellyn’s research as part of PATROLs is establishing a 3D liver model that could evaluate realistic ENM exposures and reduce the need for animal testing. Bioluminescent assays for assessing cell health and liver enzyme function are necessary to reach this goal.

luciferse technologies are allowing researchers to develop predictive 3D organoid models for ERM testing

To learn more about the last 30 years of bioluminescent innovations and the discoveries they’ve enabled, please visit our 30th anniversary celebration page.

Related Posts

RNA-Protein Interactions: A New Frontier for Drug Discovery

Almost 90% of the human genome is transcribed into RNA, but only 3% is ultimately translated into a protein. Some non-translated RNA is thought to be useless, while some play a significant yet often mysterious role in cancer and other diseases. Despite its abundance and biological significance, RNA is rarely the target of therapeutics.

“We say it’s undruggable, but I would say that ‘not-yet-drugged’ is a better way to put it,” says Amanda Garner, Associate Professor of Medicinal Chemistry at the University of Michigan. “We know that RNA biology is important, but we don’t yet know how to target it.”

Amanda’s lab develops systems to study RNA biology. She employs a variety of approaches to analyze the functions of different RNAs and study their interactions with proteins. Her lab recently published a paper describing a novel method for studying RNA-protein interactions (RPI) in live cells. Amanda says that with the right tools, RPI could become a critical target for drug discovery.

“It’s amazing that current drugs ever work, because they’re all based on really old approaches,” Amanda says. “This isn’t going to be like developing a small molecule kinase inhibitor. It’s a whole new world.”

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Drug Repurposing Screens: Redeploying Old Dogs for New Tricks

This blog was written by guest author, Amy Landreman, PhD.

Drug repurposing, identifying new uses for approved or investigational drugs, is an attractive strategy when looking for new disease treatments. Because the compounds have already gone through some level of pre-clinical optimization and safety testing, this approach can reduce risk, reduce cost, and speed up the timeline for further drug development. An additional benefit of this approach is that it can result in new biological insights or a better understanding of disease mechanisms since these compounds usually already have some level of mechanistic characterization. Indeed, there are now a number of compound collections openly available specifically for the purpose of facilitating drug repurposing efforts. For example, the ReFRAME (Repurposing, Focused Rescue, and Accelerated Medchem) library is a collection of 12,000 compounds developed by Scripps Research Center and has been screened to identify novel candidate therapeutics for Cryptosporidium infection (1). The Broad Institute also offers a drug repurposing hub that contains an annotated collection of over 7,000 compounds.

Drug repurposing libraries, although often smaller than novel compound small molecule libraries, are designed for implementation into high-throughput screening workflows in order to efficiently triage compounds for the desired result. Effective compound screens require assays that can be scaled to 384 or 1536-well microplate formats and implemented in batch or continuous processing workflows. The firefly luciferase reaction has been leveraged to create many assays that are well-suited to these types of high-throughput screening approaches. In particular, the generation of “Glow” assays that have stable luminescent signals and homogenous assay design is a good fit. The signal stability allows for multi-plate processing and because the reagent is added directly to cells in culture, pre-processing steps are eliminated allowing for automated workflows. Assay reagents such as the CellTiter-Glo® Cell Viability Assay and the ADP-Glo™ Kinase Assay are commonly used in screening efforts including those done with repurposing libraries.  In addition, there are several firefly luciferase reporter assay reagents such as Steady-Glo® and Bright-Glo™ Luciferase Assays that have been optimized for high-throughput detection of firefly luciferase activity making them well-suited to repurposing screens.

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Monochromator vs Filter-Based Plate Reader: Which is Better?

When it comes to purchasing a microplate reader for fluorescence detection, the most common question is whether to choose a monochromator-based reader or filter-based reader. In this blog, we’ll discuss how both types of plate readers work and factors to consider when determining the best plate reader for your need.

How do monochromator-based plate readers work?

Monochromators work by taking a light source and splitting the light to focus a particular wavelength on the sample. During excitation, the light passes through a narrow slit, directed by a series of mirrors and diffraction grating and then passes through a second narrow slit prior to reaching the sample. This ensures the desired wavelength is selected to excite the fluorophore. Once the fluorophore is excited, it emits light at a different, longer wavelength. This emission light is captured by another series of mirrors, grating and slits to limit the emission to a desired wavelength, which then enters a detector for signal readout.

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