07 May 2012

Mastering Dynamic Cell Signaling

The following article was first published on Al Fin Longevity blog
Cells make decisions in fluctuating environments using inherently noisy biochemical mechanisms. Such effects create considerable, unpredictable variation – known as ‘stochasticity’– both over time and between genetically identical cells. To understand how cells exploit and control these biochemical fluctuations, scientists must identify the sources of stochasticity, quantify their effects, and distinguish variation that carries information about the biological environment from confounding noise.

In their PNAS paper, Dr Bowsher and Professor Swain show how to decompose the fluctuations of biochemical networks into multiple components and how to design experimental ‘reporters’ to measure these components in living cells.

The paper, which describes the application of this approach to yeast cells, shows that the majority of cellular variation may be informational in origin and due to fluctuations in the cellular environment. The results pave the way to a better understanding of the dynamics of signal processing and decision-making by cells. _SD
Cell Signaling Network, Preliminary Sketch

We begin to comprehend the potential power of cell signaling mastery, when we observe research breakthroughs such as the following:
In laboratory experiments with mouse cells, the researchers found that a specific protein that regulates cell aging also controls a process that causes blood-making stem cells to age. Using drugs to inhibit the action of this protein (called Cdc42) reversed aging of the hematopoietic stem cells and restored their function to a level similar to that of younger stem cells.

It had been [previously] believed that the aging of hematopoietic stem cells was locked in by nature and could not be reversed by using drugs, according to a hospital news release.

...The study by scientists at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center and Ulm University Medicine in Germany appeared online May 3 in the journal Cell Stem Cell. _USN
Turning old hematopoietic stem cells into young hematopoietic stem cells is nothing to sneeze at. And it is only a slight foretaste of what is becoming possible, as we better understand cell signaling networks and the signaling involved in gene expression.

One of the more exciting near-to-intermediate term possibility arising from the coming mastery of cell signaling, is the ability to reverse neurodegenerative diseases which involve abnormal protein folding. Diseases such as Alzheimer's, Huntington's, Parkinson's, and "mad cow disease," for example, involve abnormal proteins leading to cell destruction and loss of neural function.
Researchers at the University of Leicester uncovered how the build-up of proteins in mice with prion disease resulted in brain cells dying.

They showed that as misfolded protein levels rise in the brain, cells respond by trying to shut down the production of all new proteins.

...The team at the Medical Research Council laboratory in Leicester then tried to manipulate the switch which turned the protein factory off. When they prevented cells from shutting down, they prevented the brain dying. The mice then lived significantly longer.

Each neuro-degenerative disease results in a unique set of misfolded proteins being produced, which are then thought to lead to brain cells dying.

Prof Giovanna Mallucci told the BBC: "The novelty here is we're just targeting the protein shut-down, we're ignoring the prion protein and that's what makes it potentially relevant across the board."

The idea, which has not yet been tested, is that if preventing the shut down protects the brain in prion disease - it might work in all diseases that have misfolded proteins.

Prof Mallucci added: "What it gives you is an appealing concept that one pathway and therefore one treatment could have benefits across a range of disorders. _BBC
Nature article

Complex cell signaling is also involved in the control of gene expression, including critically important DNA repair, and control of telomere length in cells -- which controls the number of cell doublings allowed.

If you click on the image above, you can view an enlarged version of a portion of a cell signaling network. Such complexity explains the need for high powered computational backup in the attempt to decode these networks, as a prelude to their mastery.

Cellular processes take place very quickly, and in a closely controlled and balanced chemical milieu. If we are to learn to intervene on the level of the cell in a beneficial way, we must proceed with care. But we definitely aim to proceed.

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