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Monitoring mitochondria of living cells to diagnose cancer and other diseases

Scientists from the Institute of Organic Chemistry of the CSIC in Madrid have developed the first fluorescent probe to be introduced in the mitochondria to monitor its function in living cells. A discovery that can have applications in the diagnosis and treatment of pathologies such as cancer, heart disease or diabetes, as well as other mitochondrial diseases.

Human cancer cells stained with the fluorescent probe. Image: Chemical Science, 2020, DOI: 10.1039/C9SC04852A.Mitochondria are the cellular organelles responsible for the production of energy in eukaryotic organisms. The deregulation of this dynamic is related to the onset of mitochondrial or neurodegenerative disorders, as well as inflammatory, cardiovascular and genetic diseases.

The fluorescent marker developed by IQOG-CSIC is based on the use of carnitine, a gamma-amino acid present in all eukaryotic cells. It is also used as a food supplement.

The probe is based on the use of carnitine, also used as a food supplement

“Carnitine helps to transport fatty acids through the inner membrane of the mitochondria to the inside of the mitochondrial matrix to be «burned» and produce energy”, explains José Luis Chiara, a project researcher at the IQOG. The carnitine molecule is considered a “fat burning”, which has never been used to prepare fluorescent probes.

The transport of molecules through the inner mitochondrial membrane is a challenge of scientific research. The fluorescent probe acts on the mitochondrial matrix and is the first one used in cell microscopy created with carnitine derivatives. This advance opens the door to the diagnosis of diseases such as cancer, certain heart diseases, diabetes or CACT insufficiency syndrome, which causes problems to transform fat into energy, as well as other mitochondrial diseases of genetic origin.


Eva Gabaldón Sahuquillo
Vicepresidencia Adjunta de Transferencia del Conocimiento
Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC)
Tel.: (+34) 915681550
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