The unusual discovery comes in a British study in the April 15 issue of Cancer Research.
University College London and Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research scientists took the firefly gene that lets the insect create bioluminescent light and inserted it into modified cancer cells.
The firefly light source, called luciferin, made the cancer cells glow. When a photosensitizing agent was added to the cancer cells, they produced toxic substances that killed them.
"The cells produced enough light to trigger their own death," researcher Dr. Theodossis Theodossiou says in a news release.
This use of the firefly gene may offer another way to perform photodynamic therapy. That's a treatment that uses bursts of light to attack cancer near the skin's surface or on the lining of internal organs.
With photodynamic therapy, cancer cells are treated with a photosensitizer and then exposed to lasers or another external beam light source. That light activates production of active oxygen species that kill cancer cells.
However, external light sources are only able to pass through a thin amount of tissue. That makes it difficult to use photodynamic therapy to treat deeper cancers.
The use of the firefly gene means that the light source needed to destroy cancer cells can be imbedded in the cancer cells themselves.
"The light is generated within the tumor cell, so there's no need for outside penetration," study co-author John Hothersall says in a news release.
Here's where you can learn more about photodynamic therapy.