New Findings Suggest that Zinc is key factor in Enzyme that Regulates Cell Death

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New findings by Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) researchers implicate naturally occurring zinc as a causative agent in regulation of apoptosis. This is a significant development in the search for drug therapies to treat debilitating illnesses and diseases such as cancers, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

The VCU research findings were recently published in Angewandte Chemie, in its international edition. Apoptosis is the naturally occurring process of cell death. There are a number of enzymes that regulate the process of apoptosis. If there is a deficiency in one of the mechanisms regulating apoptosis, neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s occur. It has been established that zinc inhibits caspase activity, thereby regulating apoptosis. Drug treatments in use today for cancer and Alzheimer’s target the caspases, therefore this new research could be key to the scientific discovery of new therapeutic agents.

Eleven caspases are identified today. Researchers focused their efforts on caspase-3, one of the seven caspases known to regulate apoptosis. Using established biophysical and enzymologic techniques, they discovered a heretofore unknown interaction between zinc and caspase-3. Nicholas P. Farrell, PhD. of the VCU Developmental Therapeutics program said that further study will need to be conducted, but it could be that zinc is interacting with all the caspases. If so, then the focus will be on developing drug therapies that would target this zinc-caspase interaction to regulate apoptosis.

In the meantime, the study is precipitating a new line of scientific inquiry, called bioinorganic chemistry of apoptosis, which is examining and seeking to understand how the requisite metal ions are interacting in the fundamental process of life and death of cells. Dr. Farrell noted that zinc’s role in constraining apoptosis is exactly the opposite of the metal closest to it—copper, which is known to accelerate apoptosis.