Scientists finally understand self-destructing protein

Finding out what was happening with an elusive protein in the human body that self-destructs after just a few hours had for years seemed like an impossible mission. But researchers from the University of Southern Denmark and Aarhus University worked together to study its behaviour and think that at last they understand what it’s up to.

The protein, called PAI-1, has a role in a lot of bodily functions, including helping to dissolve coagulated blood to break down blood clots. Conversely, in large doses, it seems to hasten tumour growth.

If scientists can find a way to regulate its levels, they might be able to maximise its benefits while preventing people from producing too much. This could lead to better treatment for patients with blood clots or who are at risk of developing them, as well as helping patients who bleed too much.

They’re now a step closer to their goal having finally found out exactly how the sneaky blighter changes shape. It turns out that unlike any other protein, it unfolds, origami-style, and dissolves into the bloodstream. But if this process is nipped in the blood, it prolongs its life, meaning scientists should be able to find a way to work with it.

Doing this precisely and consistently enough so that in future it could be used in medical applications is their next challenge, if they choose to accept it.

Image via University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources & Environment’s Flickr.

Diane Shipley