This is the 8th post in the interesting science this week series which started at my blogger site: http://lettersfrombasement.blogspot.in.
Our bodies, at a basic level, are a collection of different types of cells. The type of a cell is determined by its function and the genes that it expresses. All the different cell types have one fundamental feature, that they have a semi-impervious circumference called the Plasma Membrane that is made up mostly of lipids (or fat molecules). The plasma membrane is ‘semi’-impervious because it has specialized paths called the transporters that, as the name suggests, transport specific molecules across the barrier. Like the type of cells, the number of cells in the body is tightly regulated by the time and the number of times the cells can divide. But on occasions, the tight control over the cell number is lost and the cells divide like crazy. This leads to the condition that the world is familiar with as cancer.
There are different types of cancers based on which part of the body has gone crazy. The deadliest of these, the one that is the cause most cancer-related deaths worldwide, is the cancer of the lung and about 85% of all lung cancers are caused by what is called the non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). NSCLCs are mostly unresponsive to traditional chemotherapy treatments and are mostly treated by surgically removing the cancerous tissue. Majority of the NSCLC cases are caused by two different lung cancers, the adenocarcinoma (ADC) and squamous cell carcinoma (SqCC). Though ADC and SqCC originate from different types of cells, only little was known about the changes in the particular cells that lead to these two types of cancers.
A report was recently published in the journal Nature Communications where the researchers have found that the SqCC cells produce a protein called GLUT1 in higher normal quantities. GLUT1 is a protein that is present in the plasma membrane of the cells and aids in transport of glucose, a sugar, between the inside and outside of the cells. Interestingly, the higher production of GLUT1 was not found in the other predominant type of lung cancer, ADC. It was also found that curtailing the normal function of GLUT1 prevented tumour growth in SqCC. These observations indicate that the SqCC cells require higher amount of glucose than normal cells for them to survive and multiply. These observations give cancer researchers a new handle that can be exploited to treat a specific type of highly lethal cancer by preparing drugs targeted at this newly identified sugar craving of cancer cells.
Stroke is a condition which arises from the death of brain cells because they do not get oxygen. This happens when the blood vessels carrying oxygenated blood to the brain either burst or are blocked. The affected person either dies or loses some bodily functions, the nature and extent of which depends on what functions are controlled by the part of brain where cell death happens. There is a very informative video about stroke on this page. According to World Health Organization (WHO) data, stroke was the 2nd most common cause of death world wide in 2015 accounting for more than 60,00,000 lives. National Stroke Association of US says that stroke is the leading cause of adult disability in that country.
Despite its lethality and the heavy economic and emotional burden on the survivors, there are very few strategies to treat or prevent stroke. The most critical variable between permanent brain damage and recovery after an attack of stroke is the time it takes for the affected person to get medical attention. The current window for effective treatment post an attack is no more than 3-4 hours. However, if the results of a newly published work are translated to real world application, this window of time can be extended to as much as 8 hours. And this has been achieved using protein from an unusual source, the poison from an Australian spider called Darling Downs funnel-web spider.
During stroke, the low levels of oxygen in brain leads to acidification. This activates a protein called the Acid Sensing Ion-channel 1a (ASIC 1a) which then activates the process of cell death (called apoptosis) of the affected cells. The researchers found that a particular small protein in the spider venom, called Hi1a, was able to shut down ASIC 1a and prevented cell death. When Hi1a was used treat mice that suffered stroke, it was able to reduce the extent of brain damage. Moreover, the treatment with Hi1a was effective in preventing brain damage even when used as late as 8 hours after stroke.
PS: while researching for this segment, I looked up information from National Stroke Association of US, Stroke Association of UK and National Health Service, UK. I tried to look up for sources with information specific to India and reached the website of Indian Stroke Association. As you will see from the website, it looks more like a medium for self-promotion of the association’s office bearers than a resource about stroke in general or information specific to such cases in India.
Like stroke, heart attack is a condition that arises due to death of muscle cells in the heart when they do not receive sufficient oxygen. Again, like stroke, this happens because the blood supply to these cells is blocked. An effective way to counter heart attack and restore the damaged heart tissue is to restore oxygen supply to these cells. In a recently published work, a group of researchers from Stanford University and University of Pennsylvania, have proposed a very innovative method to restore oxygen supply to damaged heart tissue by using light rather than blood flow as source of energy.
Cyanobacteria, as the name suggests, is a type of bacteria. But they are different from other types of bacteria in how they get their food which is similar to plants. Cyanobacteria are mostly aquatic organisms (live in water) and produce their food through a process called photosynthesis using energy from sun light and carbon dioxide, and in the process release oxygen. When these cyanobacteria were injected into the hearts of mice that were given a heart attack and exposed to light, scientists observed that the hearts had 25 times more oxygen than before. Mice injected with cyanobacteria and exposed to light pumped 60% more blood compared to mice that did not receive cyanobacteria and 30% more compared to those that received cyanobacteria but not light. After 4 weeks, mice injected with cyanobacteria and exposed to light showed a significantly reduced damaged heart tissue. The researchers did not observe any toxicity or other negative effects from injection of cyanobacteria in mice.
It needs to be noted that these are very early results and much work needs to be done before something similar could be used to treat human heart. This is nevertheless a very interesting idea to solve an important biomedical problem. That in itself is worth our attention.
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