(ORDO NEWS) — Copper is an essential element in the life of bacteria and fungi, plants and animals. In the human body, it binds enzymes to help blood clot, hormones mature, and cells produce energy. But excess copper kills cells.
Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard have discovered a new cause of cell death caused by copper. It turned out that copper binds to specialized proteins, forming clots, and also disrupts the function of proteins. Cells fall into a state of toxic stress and die.
The study also revealed which cells are particularly vulnerable to copper damage. The results could help develop new cancer treatments, according to Phys.org.
“Copper is a double-edged sword: too little and the cells can’t survive. Too much and the cells die. We figured out how harmful excess copper is,” said Todd Golub, a scientist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School.
The study of the nature of copper toxicity began in 2019. Scientists have stumbled upon two small molecules that move copper across cell membranes.
They found that the molecules destroyed drug-resistant cancer cells. One of the molecules, esclemol, was even in clinical trials as a potential cancer drug. It did not show efficacy in patients because it was not clear how this molecule works.
The researchers hypothesized that the toxicity of copper carriers comes from the copper itself. Copper-binding molecules (ionophores) induce cell death, and this process is completely dependent on the presence of copper.
Scientists have found that this form of cell death, kubrotosis, is different from other forms studied. The researchers blocked known pathways of cell death such as apoptosis (breakdown) and ferroptosis (iron oxidation). Cells exposed to copper ionophores continued to die.
Using the CRISPR method, the team identified key genes that contribute to copper-induced cell death.
A similar mechanism of cell death is known to occur in bacteria and yeast. The study will help study the biological processes in people with genetic disorders associated with copper dysregulation, such as Wilson’s disease.
The analysis showed that the molecule helped patients with oncology, in cases where the tumor developed with the help of mitochondria. Elesclomol has the potential to be used to treat certain types of cancer.
The scientists hope their findings will inspire others to start new research projects in cell biology, cancer treatment and antibiotics.
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