Cell communication

From: Grant Callaghan (grantc4@hotmail.com)
Date: Wed 11 Dec 2002 - 23:09:17 GMT

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    The vital 'cell-phones': delving into the body's lines of communication

    By Scott LaFee December 11, 2002

    Ask most people to give an example of Big Science in biology and they're likely to suggest something like The Human Genome Project the $3 billion, 12-year effort that concluded with a rough map of the 100,000 or so genes in the human body.

    If they wanted to show off a little, they might mention proteomics the study of proteins and early efforts to map the forms and functions of every protein in the human body, the so-called Human Proteome Project.

    The latter is a much bigger challenge than mapping genes. If genes are the recipe for making a human being, proteins are everything else in the kitchen: ingredients, utensils, oven and chef.

    In other words, proteins are essential stuff, the architecture and operators in each and every human cell, all 50 trillion of them.

    "Proteins make up the working machinery of the cell and are involved in every aspect of cell function," said Gretchen Edwalds-Gilbert, a professor of molecular biology and a research scientist at Scripps College in Claremont.

    So it is reasonably big, if not widely reported, news that scientists at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and a San Francisco-based biotech company named SUGEN have just finished creating a detailed catalog of the 518 protein kinase genes encoded in the human genome. Their research was published last week in the journal Science. They have dubbed it: The Human Kinome Project." Protein kinases are among the body's most important molecules, responsible for initiating, controlling and monitoring the flow of information within and between cells.

    Cell signaling, as it is called, is absolutely critical to human health and well-being. For our bodies to work properly, cells must do the right thing at the right time. They do this through incessant communication, talking to themselves and to each other via complex chemical pathways. Protein kinases, which belong to the same biological class as enzymes, help ensure messages are successfully transmitted by carrying clusters of atoms known as phosphoryl groups between various molecules. The movement of a phosphoryl group is similar to the flick of a switch, causing a biochemical pathway to go slower or faster.

    Cellular miscommunication causes disease. Defective protein kinases have been associated with hundreds of human diseases, including some types of cancer.

    That's why the Salk/SUGEN catalog is big news. Protein kinases represent the latest, best target for developing new drugs for cancer, diabetes, osteoporosis, inflammation and diseases of the eye. Gleevac, a recently approved drug that has been successfully used to treat chronic myeloid leukemia, is the first drug based on altering kinase function.

    "Kinase inhibitors will be major players in the next generation of targeted drugs for cancer and other diseases," said Tony Hunter, a professor of molecular and cell biology at Salk and one of the study's authors.
    "Ultimately, we'll be able to use this information for diagnostic and therapeutic purposes."

    Of course, nothing will change immediately. Mapping the human kinome is just a first step, akin to putting the pages of a book in order before reading it. Development of a new drug takes, on average, more than a decade and there's a lot scientists still do not know or understand about cell signaling or its role in human disease.

    But it's a step forward. And something worth talking about.

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