What does a cell do when it can’t get the food it needs? In the process of autophagy, it takes advantage of the closest food around; namely, itself. Autophagy is known to play a role in many human diseases but the nature of said role is somewhat open to debate. Hoping to shed some light on the matter, bioresearchers at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor have found a genetic link that allows for regulation of autophagy.
At the conceptual level, autophagy is triggered by autophagosomes, cell organelles that serve as containers for food and/or waste. The larger and more numerous the autophagosomes, the more prone the cell is to begin consuming itself in times of peril. The tricky part about autophagy is that it isn’t clear whether cells would benefit more from an increase or decrease in autophagy. Much of this debate focuses on cancer. For instance, autophagy is responsible for the removal of damaged proteins and organelles; therefore, autophagy can actually help suppress tumors. On the other hand, cancerous cells also use autophagy to keep themselves alive when they would have otherwise died.
(A picture of an autophagosome taken with an electron microscope, courtesy Wikimedia Commons)
This leaves the medical and research community with the seemingly contradictory wish of being able to both induce and inhibit the process of autophagy. Ann Arbor delivers in a most impressive way. Professor of biological chemistry Daniel Klionsky (left) believes that the key to controlling autophagy is to control the autophagosomes. "Increasing or decreasing the size or quantity of autophagosomes is a key goal for therapeutics in a clinical setting, but the field has had little understanding of how size or number is regulated," he states in an Ann Arbor publication.
Klionsky and his lab have actually isolated the gene for the job: Atg9, which controls the size and quantity of autophagosomes. His work so far has been in yeasts for experimental convenience, but “Atg9 also exists and works the same way in humans, so this is promising for future treatments for patients." The ability to regulate autophagy should have interesting results in research and beneficial effects for human patients.
Funding for this research came from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Whitehall Foundation and the Fast Forward Medical Innovation program at U-M Medical School. For more detailed funding statistics regarding the University of Michigan, read on with our Funding Statistics and Vendor Show Info report:
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