Clean-up process may help fight disease

MELBOURNE: Melbourne researchers have cracked a key process in how cells right across the body stay healthy and youthful, a significant breakthrough they say could help design new drugs to protect against devastating brain diseases, infection, and even treat obesity and cancer.

Monash University researchers are now starting experiments to develop the ingredients for new treatments based on their findings, which aim to enhance the ability of cells to clear cellular “rubbish” inside them.

The team from the Monash Biomedicine Discovery Institute used high-powered microscopes to study this process in live cells called autophagy, where damaged cells are cleared away to make room for new healthy cells.

It is the same process triggered by fasting in 5:2 diets to promote weight loss.

When cells become clogged with debris, this contributes to the development of a wide range of diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes and Huntington’s.

They found that the membrane cells use to trap the cellular debris is responsible for sounding a chemical “alarm”. This amplifies the garbage removal response, quickly bring more helper cells to the site to carry away the rubbish.

Lead researcher Dr Ben Padman said this debunked the previous science of the interaction, and provided a more accurate blue print for drug design.

“Pretty much all cells have a “clean-up crew” working to keep the cell clean. But sometimes the cell can’t keep up with the amount of rubbish that’s building up,” said Dr Padman.

“We found this process controls the speed of the clean-up crew, so it’s like giving your office cleaners a bunch of coffee. We might be able to speed it up and help the cells stay on top of the piles of rubbish instead of letting it build up.”

Slowly down this process could be useful for other diseases, Dr Padman said. Chemotherapy-resistant cancers speed up this waste removal process as a way of dodging treatment.

“This process is so fundamental to the human body that it’s hard to see where the line ends in terms of what diseases could benefit,” he said.

“Cells aren’t always good at deciding if a pile of rubbish is really rubbish. We also want to help cells better recognise that bacteria is inside them, and that they should act on that.”