Carnegie Mellon University's Philip R. LeDuc and his collaborators in Massachusetts and Taiwan have made discovery that could ultimately unlock the mystery of how proteins play a central role in the mechanics of biological processes in people.
"For over 15 years, researchers have been mainly focusing on a protein called Integrin to study these cell functions, but our team found that another lesser known protein called Syndecan-4 is extremely important in cell behavior in a field called MechanoBiology (a field linking mechanics and biology). Syndecan-4 is known to play an essential role in a variety of diseases like cancer," LeDuc said.
In cancer and wound healing, LeDuc explains, one of the critical factors between more treatable primary cancer and secondary cancer, which has spread throughout the body is the ability for cells to leave the primary tumor and crawl to other places in the body through the blood stream.
"The process of cell crawling is heavily influenced by MechanoBiology and this protein, Syndecan-4, is part of that," LeDuc said. "If MechanoBiology can be better understood, new directions for cancer and wound healing treatments could be made."
LeDuc's new findings appear in the Dec. 29 edition of the prestigious journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences along with complementary work that is appearing in another highly respected journal, Nature Protocols.
Essentially what his research does is take a look at how a protein's shape and form determines how it functions in the human body from a mechanics perspective. Proteins are composed of long chains of amino acids than can form bonds with other molecules in a chain, kinking, twisting and folding into complicated, three-dimensional shapes, such as helices or densely furrowed globular structures.
"These folded shapes are immensely important because they can define a protein's function in the cell," said LeDuc, who is also developing novel biologically inspired diagnostic approaches and materials as well as computational methods to understand molecular behavior.
LeDuc said his research finds that some protein shapes fit perfectly into cell receptors, turning chemical processes on and off, like a key in a lock. With mechanics changing the shape of proteins, LeDuc says the key might no longer fit into the lock, and serious consequences in the body can occur when proteins fail to assume their preordained shapes or fail to connect properly.
"Misguided proteins have been linked to disease such as cancer, arthritis and wound healing, among others," LeDuc said. "Our research is looking at how protein shapes affect cells and how cell biomechanics impacts the entire process."