Prions and Chaperones: Outside the Fold

Lindquist2Bijal P. Trivedi in Nature News:

On a frigid winter's morning in 1992, Susan Lindquist, then a biologist at the University of Chicago in Illinois, trudged through the snow to the campus's intellectual-property office to share an unconventional idea for a cancer drug. A protein that she had been working on, Hsp90, guides misfolded proteins into their proper conformation. But it also applies its talents to misfolded mutant proteins in tumour cells, activating them and helping cancer to advance. Lindquist suspected that blocking Hsp90 would thwart the disease. The intellectual-property project manager she met with disagreed, calling Lindquist's idea “ridiculous” because it stemmed from experiments in yeast. His “sneering tone”, she says, left an indelible mark. “It was actually one of the most insulting conversations I've had in my professional life.” It led her to abandon her cancer research on Hsp90 for a decade. Today, more than a dozen drug companies are developing inhibitors of the protein as cancer treatments.

Lindquist seems able to shrug off such injustices, now. Her work over the past 20 years has consistently challenged standard thinking on evolution, inheritance and the humble yeast. She has helped to show how misfolded infectious proteins called prions can override the rules of inheritance in yeast, and how this can be used to model human disease. She has also proposed a mechanism by which organisms can unleash hidden variation and evolve by leaps and bounds. She was the first female director of the prestigious Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and has received more than a dozen awards and honours in the past five years. In a paper being published this week in Nature, she and her colleagues show that in wild yeast, prions provide tangible advantages, such as survival in harsh conditions and drug resistance.