Optical signatures of tumor cells may be generated by expression of reporter genes encoding bioluminescent/fluorescent proteins. Bioluminescent imaging is a novel technique that identifies such light sources from the light flux detected on the surface of a small animal. This technique can effectively evaluate tumor cell growth and regression in response to various therapies in medical research, drug development and gene therapy. In this paper, the diffusion approximation is employed to describe the propagation of photons through biological tissues. Then, a practical method is proposed for localizing and quantifying bioluminescent sources from external bioluminescent signals. This method incorporates prior knowledge on permissible source regions, and transforms the inverse bioluminescent problem into a finite element-based constrained optimization procedure. This approach is validated and evaluated with ideal and noise data in numerical simulation.© (2004) COPYRIGHT SPIE--The International Society for Optical Engineering. Downloading of the abstract is permitted for personal use only.