Researchers at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) School of Medicine have determined that a particular type of cellular stress called osmotic stress is of critical importance to cell growth and the body’s immune response against infection. The findings may have implications for autoimmune disorders, transplant rejections, and potential cancer therapies.
Published in the online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) the week of July 5, 2004, the research in mice provided the first proof that a specific transcription factor, a gene that acts as an “on-off” switch, is essential for normal cell proliferation under conditions of osmotic stress and is also necessary for the body’s immune response to invading pathogens.
Osmotic stress occurs when the concentration of molecules in solution outside of the cell is different than that inside the cell. When this happens, water flows either into or out of the cell by osmosis, thereby altering the intracellular environment. Hyperosmotic stress causes water to diffuse out of the cell, resulting in cell shrinkage, which can lead to DNA and protein damage, cell cycle arrest, and ultimately cell death. Cells compensate or adapt to osmotic stress by activating an osmotic stress response pathway that is controlled by a gene called nuclear factor of activated T cells 5 (NFAT5)/tonicity enhancer binding protein (TonEBP). This NFAT5/TonEBP protein is the only known mammalian transcription factor that is activated by hyperosmotic stress.
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