Should greater attention be given to protein damage in chronic diseases such as Alzheimer’s and diabetes? One life scientist says “yes” and suggests changing how test developers view the cause of age-related and degenerative diseases
DNA and the human genome get plenty of media attention and are considered by many to be unlocking the secrets to health and long life. However, as clinical laboratory professionals know, DNA is just one component of the very complex organism that is a human being.
In fact, DNA, RNA, and proteins are all valid biomarkers for medical laboratory tests and, according to one life scientist, all three should get equal attention as to their role in curing disease and keeping people healthy.
Along with proteins and RNA, DNA is actually an “equal partner in the circle of life,” wrote David Grainger, PhD, CEO of Methuselah Health, in a Forbes opinion piece about what he calls the “cult of DNA-centricity” and its relative limitations.
Effects of Protein Damage
“Aging and age-related degenerative diseases are caused by protein damage rather than by DNA damage,” explained Grainger, a Life Scientist who studies the role proteins play in aging and disease. “DNA, like data, cannot by itself do anything. The data on your computer is powerless without apps to interpret it, screens and speakers to communicate it, keyboards and touchscreens to interact with it.”
“Similarly,” he continued, “the DNA sequence information (although it resides in a physical object—the DNA molecule—just as computer data resides on a hard disk) is powerless and ethereal until it is translated into proteins that can perform functions,” he points out.
According to Grainger, diseases such as cystic fibrosis and Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy may be associated with genetic mutation. However, other diseases take a different course and are more likely to develop due to protein damage, which he contends may strengthen in time, causing changes in cells or tissues and, eventually, age-related diseases.
“Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, or autoimmunity often take decades to develop (even though your genome sequence has been the same since the day you were conceived); the insidious accumulation of the damaged protein may be very slow indeed,” he penned.
“But so strong is the cult of DNA-centricity that most scientists seem unwilling to challenge the fundamental assumption that the cause of late-onset diseases must lie somewhere in the genome,” Grainger concludes.
Shifting Focus from Genetics to Proteins
Besides being CEO of Methuselah Health, Grainger also is Co-Founder and Chief Scientific Advisor at Medicxi, a life sciences investment firm that backed Methuselah Health with $5 million in venture capital funding for research into disease treatments that focus on proteins in aging, reported Fierce CEO.
Methuselah Health, founded in 2015 in Cambridge, UK, with offices in the US, is reportedly using post-translational modifications for analysis of many different proteins.How Does it Work?
- Protein samples from healthy individuals and people with diseases are used;
- Proteins from the samples are sliced into protein blocks and fed slowly into a mass spectrometer, which accurately weighs them;
- Scientists observe damage to individual blocks of proteins;
- Taking those blocks, proteins are reconstructed to ascertain which proteins have been damaged;
- Information is leveraged for discovery of drugs to target diseases.
Mass spectrometry is a powerful approach to protein sample identification, according to News-Medical.Net. It enables analysis of protein specificity and background contaminants. Interactions among proteins—with RNA or DNA—also are possible with mass spectrometry.
Methuselah Health’s scientists are particularly interested in the damaged proteins that have been around a while, which they call hyper-stable danger variants (HSDVs) and consider to be the foundation for development of age-related diseases, Grainger told WuXi AppTec.
“By applying the Methuselah platform, we can see the HSDVs and so understand which pathways we need to target to prevent disease,” he explained.
For clinical laboratories, pathologists, and their patients, work by Methuselah Health could accelerate the development of personalized medicine treatments for debilitating chronic diseases. Furthermore, it may compel more people to think of DNA as one of several components interacting that make up human bodies and not as the only game in diagnostics.
—Donna Marie Pocius