Researchers solve killer protein's 'crime'

A killer protein named Reaper. A protective protein in bits and pieces. And a dead cell. This is the scene of one of the body's most perfect crimes: programmed cell death. This vital process occurs throughout life as a means to, among other purposes, eliminate potentially cancerous cells.

Now, by reconstructing the scene of the crime in the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster, researchers at the Rockefeller University have hit upon a startling finding regarding just how Reaper carries out its murderous task.

Moreover, because cancer arises in part by outwitting programmed cell death, the results, reported in the June issue of Nature Cell Biology, may lead to novel strategies for putting this protective mechanism back into cancer cells.

"Based on this kind of knowledge, it may be possible to derive Reaper-like drugs that specifically kill off immortal cancer cells, without harming healthy cells," says Hyung Don Ryoo, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow at Rockefeller and first author of the paper.

Other authors of this paper include Andreas Bergmann, assistant professor at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, University of Texas, Houston, Texas; Hedva Gonen, scientist and Aaron Ciechanover, professor at Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, Israel; and Hermann Steller, Ph.D., Strang Professor at Rockefeller, Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and principal author of the new report.

Programmed cell death occurs throughout a human's body both during development as a means to sculpt critical organs and tissues, and in adulthood as a housekeeping function, whereby potentially harmful cells are eliminated. Fruit flies also experience a similar kind of programmed cell death and thus are excellent model organisms in which to study this process.

According to the new research, Reaper triggers programmed cell death, or as scientists say "apoptosis," by instructing a fly cell's principal guard protein, called Drosophila

Contact: Whitney Clavin
Rockefeller University

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