How cellular droplets are implicated in neurodegenerative diseases
As early as 2009, British cell biologist Anthony Hyman discovered an entirely new state of biological matter in which high concentrations of proteins accumulate locally in cellular fluid. Hyman's team has now linked these so-called cellular droplets to the development of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's disease and ALS.
The European Körber Science Prize 2022, worth one million euros, will be awarded this year to Anthony Hyman. The working group around the biologist was able to discover for the first time a hitherto unknown mechanism in the development of neurodegenerative diseases and thus lay the foundations for new therapeutic approaches.
What are cellular droplets?
Cellular droplets are dynamic condensates of cellular fluid that can form as tiny droplets in seconds and are then quickly broken down again. Cellular droplets often contain a large amount of protein which ensures local accumulation.
Cellular droplets associated with neurodegenerative diseases
As the cell biologist Hyman describes in his excellent research work, disturbances of this process are associated with the development of neurodegenerative diseases such as ALS or Alzheimer's disease. Because if the cell droplets are not broken down properly, toxic substances can settle on the sites.
Confinement in cells
Among other things, cellular droplets increasingly form in cells during stress reactions such as poisoning, radiation or heat. The stressed cells then go into a sort of lock-in strategy, shutting down the activity of the affected cells to avoid permanent damage.
When this happens to brain cells, the condensates accumulate more neurotransmitters, which are usually responsible for signal transmission in synapses. According to Hyman, about a third of the molecules of the cell nucleus are constantly organized in such membraneless condensates.
The Key to the Biggest Questions in Neurobiology
These condensates, only discovered in 2009, have now become the pioneering and fastest growing field of cell biology. Researchers in the field see them as the key to some of the biggest knowledge gaps in the field.
Influencing cellular droplets even has the potential to cure neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's disease or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). According to Hyman, this type of disease is caused by toxic deposits of solidified condensate.
Example of the village of Hyman
Hyman himself likes to use the example of a village to explain the scientific significance of his discovery. All residents are organized in different areas, which leads to interaction. The farmer grows grain, the miller grinds it into flour, the baker makes bread rolls, etc.
The cells are organized in the same way. A cell's proteins and RNA work together in certain areas of the cell, including condensates. Everyone has a different role to play.
An error in this string can have repercussions elsewhere. Even the baker can no longer make bread rolls if the farmer no longer delivers grain to the mill. However, the chain in proteins is extremely complex, which makes the research approach all the more complicated.
Scientific pioneer work
Hyman scientists are considered pioneers in the field. They have developed a whole arsenal of methods for observing cellular droplets in order to better understand their exact functions.
Hyman's extraordinary discoveries have now been rewarded with the very rich European Körber Science Prize 2022. "We combine concepts from molecular biology, physical chemistry and soft matter physics", emphasizes the winner.
Drugs targeting cellular droplets in development
Hyman intends to use the research prize funds to further refine the methods that have been developed. The biologist is also looking for amino acid codes that influence the biophysical behavior of proteins. He suspects these are the places where you can find what is wrong when there is increased droplet deposition.
Hyman is also a co-founder of the German-American company Dewpoint Therapeutics, which studies the effects of drugs on condensates. The company strives to prevent the formation of pathogenic deposits with suitable active ingredients.
"Understanding the cellular biology of condensate formation will have an important impact on future drug development," concludes Hyman. (vb)
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This text corresponds to the specifications of the specialized medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been verified by health professionals.
Graduate editor (FH) Volker Blasek
Sources:Körber Foundation: Current winner Anthony Hyman (2022) Research on cell droplets (accessed: June 30, 2022), koerber-stiftung.deKörber Foundation: New hope for the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases (accessed: June 30, 2022), koerber-stiftung .of
This article contains general advice only and should not be used for self-diagnosis or treatment. It cannot substitute a visit to the doctor.