Many of today’s medicines were discovered by trial and error: a substance is found which helps alleviate the symptoms of a disease, and it may take years before scientists really understand how it works. Typically they find that a drug has its effects by attaching itself to a particular molecule in a cell and blocking part of its activity, the way you might prevent someone from turning a light on or off by putting a lock over the switch. Scientists now hope to take the opposite approach, and custom-design drugs to block specific switches. To do so, they will need precise “technical diagrams” of the molecules they want to lock up. Now the Italian researcher Giulio Superti-Furga and his colleagues at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) have produced such a diagram of a cancer-causing molecule, and their work gives researchers a good idea of how to go about designing drugs. Their report appears in the current issue of the journal Cell.
The molecule, a protein called Abl, is produced in all human cells. Some people acquire a defect in the genetic blueprint for this molecule, causing their bodies to create a malformed version called BCR-Abl. For years researchers have known that this defective molecule is linked to forms of the deadly disease leukemia.
Abl has important jobs to perform within cells. One of its chief roles is to get information from proteins and pass it on to other molecules – like a radio operator who receives a message telling him to turn on an alarm. If Abl is defective, it might not hear incoming messages, or it might continually send off alarms, even when it hasn’t been told to do so.
Russell Hodge | alphagalileo
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