An international team of researchers has found a cellular mechanism unknown so far that can influence acute episodes of oxygen deprivation in tissues, such as stroke and myocardial infarction, and cancer. Scientists have discovered how cells are able to protect themselves to gain time and survive when their breathing is compromised.
Spanish scientists participated in the discovery of an emergency mechanism that allows cells to gain time and survive when they cannot breathe efficiently. The main author of this work, published in Nature Communications, is Rubén Quintana, a researcher at the Institute of Functional Biology and Genomics (IBFG, a joint center of the CSIC and the University of Salamanca). The findings may have important repercussions for the study of acute episodes in which some tissues stop receiving oxygen, as occurs in stroke or myocardial infarction, as well as in other biological processes.
The key is in the mitochondria, the part of the cell that consumes oxygen and produces energy. Its architecture acts to lengthen the life of the cells, in particular, the folds or ridges of its internal membrane. According to the researchers, the Opa1 protein (which gives shape to the mitochondria and maintains these structures) also favors the reverse activity of ATPase. This enzyme “is like a turbine, produces energy and works in a certain direction, but is also capable of doing it in the opposite direction and that is what happens in this case,” Quintana said.
In this way, “mitochondrial function is maintained“, explaining why the death of cells is avoided. In organs like the brain or the heart this mechanism is very important, since the prolonged absence of oxygen can have irreversible consequences and in this way the cells gain time can recover from the damage suffered.
However, it can also have important implications in non-acute situations of various diseases. For example, “in cancer, tumor cells can adapt to not depend on breathing, so that the development of the tumor would be favored“, the expert said. “A survival mechanism like this always has positive and negative consequences,” he added.
The research team, which has developed this work in cell cultures inhibiting the machinery of respiration in the mitochondria, is led by Professor Luca Scorrano, from the University of Padua (Italy), where Quintana was working, and also has other Spanish experts from the National Center for Cardiovascular Research (CNIC).