Our major organs are made up of cells, and our body uses ligands (protein messengers) to keep us healthy as these bind to receptors on these cells to regulate our natural processes.
However, when these messages become mixed up we can fall ill with a number of different diseases.
Now, a team of researchers from Stanford University has come up with a way to engineer one ligand in a few different ways to produce two very different results. One can help fight cancers while the other regenerates neurons.
Their study was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
One protein for two big functions
The experiments that Stanford bioengineer and department chair, Jennifer Cochran, and her team carried out were on rat and human cells, and mice with actual diseases, but have yet to be trialed on humans.
That said, the team's results show just how far our human body's protein-based control system can be tinkered with so as to assist vital organs to heal themselves.
By using molecular engineering techniques, the team was able to change the lineup of amino acids in a ligand, creating millions of mini keys that can then be screened to find out which ones could unlock receptors in the most favorable way. The shape is the critical part, as a ligand has to have the right shape to fit its receptor, much like a key to a lock.
The team found that it could engineer the ligand so that it increased the messaging signals needed to promote the growth of axons, which ultimately encourages imperfect neurons to regenerate themselves.
Then, by adding a few amino acid alterations to the ligand, the team discovered it could also turn it into an antagonist that blocks the growth of lung tumors in mice, which they observed during their experiment.
Cochran stated "I have long been fascinated with how proteins function as nature’s molecular machines, and how the tools of engineering allow us to shape protein structure and function with the creativity of an artist, in this case using amino acids as our palette."
She is optimistic that her and her team's research will prove useful in the future for a class of drugs that will fight illness and maintain health.