By: Diana Barnes-Brown
Newly-published research from the Yale University School of Medicine has offered insight into proteins’ role in whether cells live or die.
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At times cells respond to external factors by seeming to commit suicide – suddenly grinding their activities to a halt and ceasing to function. This process is known as apoptosis. For some time scientists have known that a family of proteins known as caspases are deeply involved in the process of apoptosis, and the Yale team’s research uncovered new knowledge into what exactly these proteins do.
In particular, the study focuses on two of the capase proteins, capase 3 and capase 7. To examine the proteins’ role in life processes, lead author Sawquib A. Lakhani and his research team bred mice that were deficient in the proteins. Looking at embryonic cell masses called fibroblasts, Lakhani discovered that cells lacking capase 3 and 7 were highly resistant to death.
In addition, capases 3 and 7 are active in controlling the role of mitochondria (small structures within the cell that provide cell energy) during apoptosis. Many wasting and degenerative diseases do damage to the body by way of apoptosis, so if medical scientists are able to control the activities of the capases, they may be able to slow or prevent the progress of such diseases.
Apoptosis is a key element of the pathology of a number of diseases that have long stymied the medical profession, including HIV/AIDS, muscular dystrophy, and diabetes mellitus.
Apoptosis and Disease
Whether it occurs too often or too infrequently, abnormalities in apoptosis can result in a variety of ailments. For example, when muscle cells undergo apoptosis faster than then can regenerate, muscular dystrophy results, while diabetes mellitus results in the death of pancreatic cells, and AIDS causes apoptosis of T-cells and renders the immune system nonfunctional. On the other hand, when cells fail to die when they should, cell growth disorders such as cancer can result.