Investigators at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital have discovered that a protein called ABCB6 plays a central role in production of a molecule that is key to the ability of red blood cells to carry oxygen, of liver cells to break down toxins, and of cells to extract energy from nutrients.
The St. Jude investigators showed that ABCB6 is lodged within the outer membrane of the cell's energy powerhouse called the mitochondria; and that it ferries into mitochondria a type of molecule called a porphryin, a molecule essential for life. A report on these results appears in the advanced online publication of Nature.
Inside the mitochondrion, porphyrins are converted to heme. Heme is the oxygen-carrying part of the red blood cell molecule called hemoglobin, as well as a critical part of certain liver enzymes that break down toxins, and so-called "respiratory chain" enzymes in mitochondria that use oxygen to produce energy-rich molecules.
The discovery of the location and function of ABCB6 solved the long-standing riddle of how porphyrins get into mitchondria so they can be used to make heme, said John Schuetz, PhD, a member of St. Jude Pharmaceutical Sciences. "Porphyrins are negatively charged and so is the inside of mitochondria," Schuetz said. "So it wasn't clear how a negatively charged molecule could get into a negatively charged environment when it should have been repulsed--like two negative poles of a magnet pushing each other apart. Our work showed that ABCB6 overcomes that problem by simply grabbing porphyrin molecules and pulling them in.
"We showed that there is a dynamic relationship between ABCB6 and the levels of heme and porphyrin that helps to regulate the production of heme," Schuetz said. The team found that the increase in ABCB6 in mitochondrial membranes caused the cells to make more porphyrin, the building block of heme. "Any disruption of this relationship can cause serious problems in the cell by altering levels of heme or porphyrins," Schuetz said.
Armed with this new information, researchers will be better able to study certain diseases at the molecular level and learn more about their causes and perhaps how to prevent or treat them. One such group of diseases is cutaneous porphyria, a buildup of porphyrins that causes the skin to blister and swell in sunlight; and acute porphoryia, a nerve problem that triggers pain in the chest, abdomen, limbs or back, as well as paralysis, cramping and personality changes or mental disorders. "Also, people with porphyria can suffer sudden, acute attacks if they take certain tranquilizers and other drugs that interfere with this system," Schuetz said. "So our work contributes to the overall picture of how disruption of the biochemical pathway of heme production can cause a variety of serious diseases."
The other authors of the study include co-first authors Partha Krishnamurthy and Guoquing Du, who contributed equally to this work; and Yu Fukuda, Daxi Sun, Janardhan Sampath, Kelly Mercer, Junfeng Wang, Beatriz Sosa-Pineda and Gopal Murti, all of St. Jude.
This work was supported in part by the National Institutes of Health and ALSAC.
St. Jude Children's Research Hospital
St. Jude Children's Research Hospital is internationally recognized for its pioneering work in finding cures and saving children with cancer and other catastrophic diseases. Founded by late entertainer Danny Thomas and based in Memphis, Tenn., St. Jude freely shares its discoveries with scientific and medical communities around the world. No family ever pays for treatments not covered by insurance, and families without insurance are never asked to pay. St. Jude is financially supported by ALSAC, its fund-raising organization. For more information, please visit www.stjude.org.
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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