Monday, March 11, 2013

Oxidative stress turns helpful proteins into killers

Oxygen is one of the most important compounds needed in order to facilitate life. It helps us to burn our fuel and turn it into energy that we use for all our bodily functions. There are also forms of oxygen that are a little less beneficial. Some chemical variants of oxygen are not entirely stable and readily react with anything they encounter. We call this reactive oxygen species (ROS) and this forms the center component to oxidative stress. While ROS are used by the immune system to kill invading microbes, oxidative stress can also damage our body. Researchers have now found a mechanism by which oxidative stress kills cells, providing new insights into novel therapeutic options for a wide range of diseases.

Central to the discovery, made by scientists from the University of Central Florida, is a protein called Hsp90. It functions as a so-called chaperone, a group of proteins which basically assist with the assembly of various cellular components and help maintain their stability, thereby facilitating many of the cell's vital processes. In the family of chaperones, Hsp90 is currently one of the least understood variants. It is however known that is plays a role in more than 200 cellular functions.

Most of the time, Hsp90 plays along nicely and helps the cell maintain its functions. However, according to the scientists, when oxidative stress comes along, Hsp90 suddenly changes its behaviour. It ceases to contribute to cellular functioning, but instead starts to shut the cell down. So instead of helping, this oxidative stress-induced behaviour of Hsp90 is actually what is killing the cell. "The concept that a protein that is normally protective and indispensable for cell survival and growth can turn into a killing machine, and just because of one specific oxidative modification, is amazing", one of the researchers involved in the study wrote.

This newfound mechanism of oxidative stress-induced damage could prove to be relevant for the treatment of many diseases. Following bodily dysfunction, resulting oxidative stress can significantly increase the sustained damage by further killing cells. Oxidative stress plays a role in inflammation, and inflammation is involved in basically all diseases. Specifically, stopping the oxidative stress-induced behaviour of Hsp90 could be a novel treatment for heart disease and neurodegenerative diseases. Also, it could possibly delay the ageing process.

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