MADISON - A University of Wisconsin-Madison research team has overturned a central theory about the stability of collagen, a protein that acts like a "solder" to give the body its structure and shape.
A new explanation of the phenomenon, published April 16 in the journal Nature, could expand the potential of collagen in treating serious disease, healing wounds and repairing damaged organs, said UW-Madison biochemist Ron Raines. It also holds promise in finding new treatments for arthritis, the most serious collagen-related disorder.
"We have essentially shown the way to create a stronger collagen that would not be as susceptible to breakdown in the body," Raines said. "This research marks a fundamental change in how we understand the structure and stability of collagen."
Collagen is an abundant protein found in skin, bone, cartilage and tendons. It forms strong fibers and serves as a connective tissue between cells. If scientists can develop a more stable collagen for human use, far more important medical therapies would be possible, Raines said. Collagen breakdown is at the heart of many serious diseases, such as arthritis, rheumatism, brittle bones, lupus, cirrhosis and cataracts. Providing a stronger source of collagen could also lead to development of a natural "solder" that heals wounds without scars, or can strengthen frail bones.
Most people have heard of collagen in the realm of cosmetic surgery, where a purified form of bovine collagen is used to provide fuller lips or smooth away wrinkles. But those improvements don't last, Raines said, because the material starts breaking down after a few months.
Collagen loses its stability over time by actually unraveling at the molecular level, which makes it susceptible to enzymes that cause it to degrade. The aging process or genetic abnormalities can cause this unraveling to occur, Raines said.