Medical Research Council (MRC) scientists have made an important advance in understanding the biological processes involved when cells die. The work may help scientists to eventually develop new treatments for cancer and disorders such as Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease.
The research, published in the journal Molecular Cell today (Thursday 8 April 2004), was carried out by a team of scientists, led by Professor Gerald Cohen, at the MRC Toxicology Unit at the University of Leicester.
Cells in the human body are continually dying and most of these cells kill themselves by a programmed form of cell death, commonly referred to as apoptosis. In a healthy body, the number of cells stays constant. Millions of new cells are produced every second, and millions of others are lost or kill themselves. Failure of the normal apoptosis process plays a role in different diseases including cancer, certain neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s and auto-immune diseases, such as lupus (systemic lupus erythematosus).
Previous research has shown that a complex cellular machine called the ‘proteasome’ may regulate apoptosis by controlling the removal of substances known as proteins, which act as key players in the cell death process.
But now, scientists at the MRC Toxicology Unit have found that the apoptosis process can also inactivate the proteasome. Stopping the proteasome from functioning properly causes an increase in the number of key death-promoting molecules, allowing the cell death programme to be carried out more efficiently.
Professor Cohen said: “This new research takes us a step closer to understanding how cells die. The challenge now is to use this knowledge to work towards finding new drugs and treatments for the many common diseases and conditions which occur when cell death goes wrong.”