Monday, May 7th, 2012
A discovery by a team of University of Ottawa researchers, published in this month’s scientific journal Nature, could eventually have a huge impact on how doctors will treat diseases including cancer, stroke, and heart disease, says an article in the Vancouver Sun.
The group had been working on the specifics of protein synthesis; namely, how cells make proteins in environments where there is little oxygen. Though scientists have long known that cells make proteins in the presence of oxygen, how they did that in conditions with little oxygen remained a mystery, the article explains. The Ottawa researchers have now solved that mystery.
“It’s a tremendously important discovery in understanding how life without oxygen works,” said Dr. Stephen Lee, a professor in the university’s department of cellular and molecular medicine. “There’s a huge amount of research, hundreds of thousands of papers. But still nobody has discovered how we make the basic building blocks of life in these conditions. That’s what we discovered.”
Lee and his team found an oxygen-regulated “switch” in the protein synthesis machinery, he explains, describing it as a “very novel and unexpected way of synthesizing proteins.” The implications for treating cancer, Lee adds, are speculative at this time but potentially huge because “cancer cells proliferate by using the same protein synthesis machinery the body employs to deal with low levels of oxygen.”
“If the cancer cells use the low-oxygen machinery to spread,” Lee said, “we can develop an antibiotic against that protein synthesis machinery. It’s as easy as that. And it’s working very well.”
The next step is to develop a related drug, a task that Lee says is not trivial but isn’t that difficult either. Such a drug, he notes, could target very specific molecules and could prevent cancer cells from making so-called building blocks. He also adds that such treatment would be a radical change from current conventional cancer treatments
and would be safer and far less toxic than administering large doses of radiation