Proteins put up a radical defence against ageing

When cells use oxygen to release energy from food, they produce a by-product called superoxide. A highly reactive free radical, superoxide can set off a chain of reactions that damage the structure of the cell and its genes, and can lead to degenerative diseases, ageing, and eventually death. Scientists have now shown that certain proteins can move the harmful superoxide from where it is made to other areas of the cell where it is destroyed safely.

These uncoupling proteins could be important in the natural antioxidant system in cells that guards against damage caused by free radicals and other oxidants. Antioxidants protect cells by eliminating reactive oxygen molecules like superoxide. Other known antioxidants are vitamins E and C. Diets high in fruit and vegetables have strong health benefits partly due to the antioxidant properties of these vitamins.

Oxidative damage has been linked with many ailments such as cardiovascular disease, strokes, autoimmune diseases like arthritis and diabetes, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. By understanding the role of uncoupling proteins in cells, new treatments for these conditions could be developed.

Commenting on his findings, Dr Martin Brand of the MRC Dunn Human Nutrition, says that the role of uncoupling proteins could be fundamental to protecting against degenerative disease and ageing. “We hope that by understanding their role, we can find potential new ways to prevent or treat free radical linked diseases. For example, we might be able to decrease cellular ageing by using chemicals that switch these proteins on. However, we need to do more research to find practical or medical applications of these exciting new findings.”