It's long been known that the mechanism that produces free radicals in the body causes cell damage, aging and disease. Scientists have sought new ways to repel them and slow their production for years. Now a new study might have found a way to use the body's natural defenses to greater advantage.
Put simply, free radicals are pairless electrons in human cells that can destabilize and damage those cells as they attempt to "steal" electrons from other molecules within the cell. Normal metabolism creates some free radicals, but the number can be significantly increased by environmental and other factors such as pollution, cigarette smoke and poor diet. A buildup of free radicals can mean tissue becomes damaged.
Now researchers at the University of Michigan (U-M) say they have discovered a protein that offers powerful protection against free radicals. Ironically, the protein is one activated by the production of excessive free radicals in the body. Lysosomes — little parcels of enzymes that make up the cell's recycling center — have a number of uses. Crucial to our story, they are responsible for cleaning up injured and dying parts of cells.
When lysosomes detect an overload of free radicals, they activate the production of more and stronger lysosomes, which effectively rid the damaged parts of the cells. Free radicals are guilty in the aging process, says lead researcher Haoxing Xu, associate professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology at U-M. "If we have chemical compounds that can directly activate this, we can lower the oxidative stress in aging and other diseases. The result will be that cell damage and free radical levels could be reduced, and one can possibly slow down aging."
This is not the first time new research has suggested tying the study of enzymes and free radicals to effective anti-aging treatments. "Nature is really cool," says Xu. "The janitor of the cell, the lysosome, has this radical-sensing ability." The new study is published online in the journal Nature Communications.