Friday, April 27, 2012

Early evolution of life tells us how to treat many diseases

There are still many secrets surrounding the question of how life on Earth came to be. Somehow, out of inorganic molecules, biological compounds such as amino acids and strings of genetic code were created. Later, these substances were 'packaged' into cells and possibly viruses, and the first bacteria also came into existence. Because bacteria are still around today, they are readily studied by scientists to uncover traces of evolutionary mechanisms that brought us to where we are today. A biological process analysed by the Case Western Reserve University explains something about the evolution of bacteria, but more importantly, gives us leads to treat a great variety of diseases.

Human cells produce nitric oxide (NO), a gas that plays an important role in exchanging signals between cells. It is well-known for its role in dilating blood vessels, but also performs a variety of other jobs. A chemical modification called S-nitrosylation (SNO) binds NO to proteins, a process associated with a great variety of diseases. Faulty NO processing can cause build-up of 'SNO proteins' and is associated with cancer, diabetes, multiple sclerosis and many more diseases.
NO's molecular structure is simple: a N(itrogen) and O(xygen) atom.
Bacterial evolution
At the Case Western Reserve University, researchers discovered that SNO plays an important role in bacteria as well. It influences a lot of processes in the bacterial cell, and has probably been around since the early days of life on Earth. It suggests that NO plays a fundamental role in the evolution of life and its functions have therefore been largely conserved: that means humans and bacteria rely on SNO signalling in similar fashion.

Because a faulty signalling mechanism has been associated with a wide variety of diseases, it is clear that therapies targeting SNO can be greatly beneficial for our health. Not only could it help us treat diabetes, cancer, multiple sclerosis and a great number of inflammatory diseases, it is also a potential antibiotic. Because SNO is regulated by about 150 genes in bacteria, there are plenty of targets to choose from, in order to disrupt the signalling process.

Bacteria provide us with an excellent study tool to discover how we can manipulate SNO in humans, one of the perks of conserved mechanisms in evolution. New studies could provide us with treatments covering an almost unprecedented wide array of therapeutic areas. Normally, drugs function by countering a specific disease, or even a specific form of a disease. There is no drug for 'everything' because the body is incredibly complex with an unimaginable number of different proteins, processes and signals that can all malfunction. Targeting SNO therefore seems incredibly promising, even though we have no functioning therapy yet. 

No comments:

Post a Comment