|Researchers from UCLA and UC Berkeley have, for the first time ever, solved the puzzle of how the various components of an entire telomerase enzyme complex fit together and function in a three-dimensional structure. The telomerase enzyme, which is known to play a significant role in aging and most cancers, represents a breakthrough that could open up a host of new approaches to fighting disease.|
The creation of the first complete visual map of the telomerase enzyme, which is known to play a significant role in aging and most cancers, represents a breakthrough that could open up a host of new approaches to fighting disease, the researchers said.
"Everyone in the field wants to know what telomerase looks like, and there it was. I was so excited, I could hardly breathe," said Juli Feigon, a UCLA professor of chemistry and biochemistry and a senior author of the study. "We were the first to see it."
The scientists report the positions of each component of the enzyme relative to one another and the complete organization of the enzyme's active site. In addition, they demonstrate how the different components contribute to the enzyme's activity, uniquely correlating structure with biochemical function.
The research appears in the print edition of the journal Nature and is available online.
"We really had to figure out how everything fit together, like a puzzle," said co-first author Edward Miracco, a National Institutes of Health postdoctoral fellow in Feigon's laboratory. "When we started fitting in the high-resolution structures to the blob that emerged from electron microscopy, we realized that everything was fitting in and made sense with decades of past biochemistry research. The project just blossomed, and the blob became a masterpiece."
The telomerase enzyme is a mixture of components that unite inside our cells to maintain the protective regions at the ends of our chromosomes, which are called telomeres. Telomeres act like the plastic tips at the end of shoelaces, safeguarding important genetic information. But each time a cell divides, these telomeres shorten, like the slow-burning fuse of a time bomb. Eventually, the telomeres erode to a point that is no longer tolerable for cells, triggering the cell death that is a normal part of the aging process.
While most cells have relatively low levels of telomerase, 80 percent to 90 percent of cancer cells have abnormally high telomerase activity. This prevents telomeres from shortening and extends the life of these tumorigenic cells - a significant contributor to cancer progression.
The new discovery creates tremendous potential for pharmaceutical development that takes into account the way a drug and target molecule might interact, given the shape and chemistry of each component. Until now, designing a cancer-fighting drug that targeted telomerase was much like shooting an arrow to hit a bulls-eye while wearing a blindfold. With this complete visual map, the researchers are starting to remove that blindfold.
"Inhibiting telomerase won't hurt most healthy cells but is predicted to slow down the progression of a broad range of cancers," said Miracco. "Our structure can be used to guide targeted drug development to inhibit telomerase, and the model system we used may also be useful to screen candidate drugs for cancer therapy."
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