How fireflies can shine light on cancer and COVID-19

Posted on Thursday, August 20, 2020


It didn’t take long for Taha Azad to apply his expertise in luciferase proteins, the enzymes that cause fireflies to glow, to novel approaches to cancer research, then to research on a vaccine and drug for COVID-19. “During my childhood in northern Iran, I used to observe fireflies and was curious about how they were emitting light,” he says.

This motivated him to study for his master’s degree in biology with a pioneering expert on light-emitting proteins. Eventually Azad, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Medicine, found his way to the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute (OHRI) as a cancer researcher. But like many in Canada and worldwide, the scientist and his team are now racing to help find a vaccine and drug to defeat the coronavirus pandemic.

An award-winning scientific trajectory

When he decided to shift the focus of his scientific career from pure biology to cancer research, Taha Azad was encouraged to draw on his knowledge of luciferase proteins to develop biosensors, tools to take snapshots of the behaviour of cancer cells. His advances successfully helped track the formation of new blood vessels at play in the proliferation of breast and lung cancer cells. “One of the biosensors I made could emit light,” Azad explains. “And because active cancer cells emit more light, you can then tell if cells are active or dying by observing how much light they produce.”

The biosensors he developed while earning his PhD at Queen’s University, under the supervision of Professor Xiaolong Yang, have helped identify new signalling pathways for cancer cells, which indicate molecular reactions that control cell functions, such as cell division or destruction. Azad’s research helped create methods of screening for the signalling pathways of cells that are metastasizing throughout the body and assisted in developing blood-vessel-blocking drugs that prevent them from doing so. Not only did this contribution mark a major milestone in the researcher’s budding career, but also it earned him the prestigious Governor General’s Gold Medal.

Fireflies flight and Vaccination in arm with virus in background

Combining cancer targeting with killer viruses

To add a new dimension to his cancer-fighting research, Taha Azad joined Professor John Bell of the Faculty of Medicine, a world-leading expert in oncolytic viral therapy, and his OHRI lab team to explore how to combine biosensors with cancer-killing viruses to regulate the proliferation of cancer cells. “About 25 years ago, so-called bad viruses became useful,” says Azad. “As cancer cells were found vulnerable to viruses, Dr. Bell demonstrated that vaccinia viruses, like the ones that were used to vaccinate our grandparents against smallpox, could be used to target these cancer cells.”

The researcher, who recently received a Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship, is set to build on the vaccinia virus platforms developed by Bell’s team to target cancer cells and help devise cancer-killing therapeutics that selectively infect and kill cancer cells. “I found a couple of proteins in cancer cells that could be engineered into specific viruses in order to better target cancer cells and reduce damage to healthy tissues,” explains Azad. Such a combination could both increase treatment efficiency and substantially reduce the cancer cells’ resistance to treatment.

Taha Azad - OHRI lab team with masks

From left to right: Taha Azad; OHRI lab team: Carolina Ilkow, Stephen Boulton, Ragunath Singaravelu, Nikolas Martin, Yoanna Poutou Paumier and Taha Azad.

Switching gears to fight the pandemic

Until recently, Azad was focussing on advancing our knowledge of cancer, the leading cause of death in Canada, but he switched gears to search for a COVID-19 vaccine and drug treatment even before the pandemic was officially declared. However, some of the credit for adapting his biosensor research to the COVID-19 virus goes to his wife, Mina Ghahremani, a uOttawa biochemistry and molecular biology researcher working with biology professor Allyson Maclean on finding an edible COVID-19 vaccine. “She suggested that I develop biosensors for COVID-19 in January, when it had not yet reached Canada,” says the researcher, who acknowledges the daunting challenge of engineering biosensors for a virus we still know so little about.

Azad and his colleagues are using firefly luciferase, light-emitting enzymes, to make tools that can find SARS-CoV-2 antibodies in less than 30 minutes. These biosensors, currently being tested on mice, are used to check for the presence of antibodies in blood. “We don’t have much time,” he admits, “but there is great collaboration between scientists.” He is proud to be working with researchers John Bell, Carolina Ilkow, and Jean-Simon Diallo of the Faculty of Medicine and OHRI on a vaccine and drug for COVID-19.

Taha Azad and wife Mina - OHRI lab team

From left to right: Mina Ghahremani and Taha Azad; Professor John Bell’s research team.

COVID-19 as a warning

“Despite the SARS-1 [epidemic] 20 years ago and MERS [outbreak] five years ago, not enough attention was paid to the scientific community, who tried to alert us of the risks of such a pandemic,” Azad points out. He thinks the current pandemic is teaching us a lesson on potential threats to humanity that scientists continue to flag.

Echoing the Nobel Prize laureates gathered in Lindau, Germany, in 2018, Azad lists climate change, antibiotic resistance, infectious diseases, and the pseudo-science that fuels anti-vaccination stances, as the major issues that scientists are urging policymakers to address. “It is difficult to change adults’ minds,” acknowledges Azad, who nevertheless believes that knowledge mobilization and scientific communication can make a difference. “Making children more educated about science is crucial,” notes the soon-to-be father. “If you teach kids to use less plastic, they will teach their parents, and my plan is to allocate some of my time to go to schools and share knowledge about science… as soon as it becomes possible.”

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