Scientists reveal details of calcium 'safety-valve' in cells

Jun 06, 2014
A calcium-leak channel prevents calcium overload in cellular organelles for protection of life. Viewing from within the membrane, the structure is shown as ribbons for the closed-conformation. The di-aspartyl pH-sensor unit and the arginine/aspartate lock are shown as sticks covered by electron densities in magenta.

(Phys.org) —Sometimes a cell has to die—when it's done with its job or inflicted with injury that could otherwise harm an organism. Conversely, cells that refuse to die when expected can lead to cancer. So scientists interested in fighting cancer have been keenly interested in learning the details of "programmed cell death." They want to understand what happens when this process goes awry and identify new targets for anticancer drugs.

The details of one such target have just been identified by a group of scientists from the U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory, Columbia University, New York University, Baylor College of Medicine, Technical University of Munich, and the New York Structural Biology Center. The group, known as the New York Consortium on Membrane Protein Structure (NYCOMPS), used x-rays at Brookhaven Lab's National Synchrotron Light Source (NSLS) to decipher the atomic level structure of a that regulates the level of calcium in cells. The work is described as a research article published in Science June 6, 2014.

"The accumulation of calcium is a key signaling agent that can trigger programmed , or apoptosis," explained Wayne Hendrickson of Columbia and Brookhaven, and the director of NYCOMPS as well as a senior author on the paper. "Our study reveals how this protein, embedded in a cellular membrane structure called the endoplasmic reticulum, serves as a molecular safety valve for keeping calcium levels steady. Designing drugs that inhibit this protein would promote cell death, which could be a promising strategy for fighting cancers in which such proteins are overexpressed."

3-D Model for Rational Drug Design

The protein that the scientists studied is a prokaryotic homolog of human "Transmembrane Bax Inhibitor Motif" (TMBIM) proteins, which come in six varieties. TMBIM6 is overexpressed in various cancers—including prostate, breast, glioma, uterine, ovarian, and lung.

"Our work using the prokaryotic version of this protein has enabled us to construct a three-dimensional model that can be used as a basis for the rational design of possible inhibitor molecules," said Qun Liu, a scientist at NSLS and NYCOMPS and the lead author on the paper.

The atomic-level structures were determined using x-ray crystallography at NSLS beamlines X4A and X4C. Interactions of x-rays with the 3-D lattices of the protein molecules produce diffraction patterns from which the 3-D molecular images were derived. The images reveal a novel structure consisting of a centralized helix wrapped by two novel triple-helix sandwiches that traverse the membrane. The central portion can take on an open or closed conformation dependent on the acidity level, or pH. At physiological pH, open and closed conformations exist in equilibrium, maintaining a steady of state of calcium in the cell by allowing gradual leakage of calcium across the membrane through a transient transmembrane pore.

"This leak is intrinsic to all kinds of cells and is cytoprotective for life, similar to a pressure safety value used in a standard steam boiler for safety assurance," said Liu.

The studies reveal in detail how the TMBIM protein senses and responds to changes in acidity to precisely regulate the mechanism.

"The next step will be to solve crystal structures of the human TMBIM proteins to refine the design of possible inhibitor drugs," said Liu.

That work will take place at a new light source nearing completion at Brookhaven known as NSLS-II. That facility, set to start early experiments later this year, will be 10,000 times brighter than NSLS, making it particularly suitable for studies of membrane proteins, which are difficult to crystallize.

Explore further: Difficult dance steps: Team learns how membrane transporter moves

More information: Scientific paper: Structural basis for a pH-sensitive calcium leak across membranes

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

NSLS-II stores 25 milliamps of current

May 01, 2014

(Phys.org) —Early on April 29, 2014, the National Synchrotron Light Source II (NSLS-II) at the U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory stored 25 milliamps (mA) of current at 3 billion ...

A new approach for solving protein structures

Sep 06, 2012

(Phys.org)—Using synchrotron x-ray beams to solve the molecular structures of proteins and other large biological molecules has yielded many advances in medicine, such as drug therapies for cancer. Improvements ...

Recommended for you

Healthy humans make nice homes for viruses

11 hours ago

The same viruses that make us sick can take up residence in and on the human body without provoking a sneeze, cough or other troublesome symptom, according to new research at Washington University School ...

Unraveling cell division

18 hours ago

CRG researchers shed new light on mitosis. The study published in the Journal of Cell Biology describes how Topo 2 disentangles DNA molecules and is essential for proper cell division

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

whygreen
not rated yet Jun 06, 2014
this article on calcium safety valves and programmed Cell Death is only 25 years behind the times. I was exploring this and had the Cell Death Signal Gene theory reviewed by M.D.Anderson Cancer Center to end an academic dispute at the U of Waterloo , except when Dr.G.L.Nicolson supported me Waterloo told me to get a lawyer and blacklisted my research so they could cover up NIH scholarship fraud.The research was plagiarized by H.R.Behrman of Yale and J.C.M. Riley the NIH scholarship recipient . the details are on www.cancerfraudbadbiotech.com .Former US Surgeon General Dr.Jocelyn Elders sent a letter of regret on my treatment as can be seen on the website. This is only interesting in how far the researchers are still behind 25 years later. This will help in my new material to President Obama to lay the fraud charges and human rights violations. People have died of cancer who didn't have to , while the scientific community stood silent just like when the Germans murdered the Jews.