Programmed cell death (a.k.a. apoptosis) is a natural process that removes unwanted cells from the body. Failure of apoptosis can allow cancer cells to grow unchecked or immune cells to inappropriately attack the body. The protein known as Bak is central to apoptosis. In healthy cells, Bak sits in an inert state but when a cell receives a signal to die, Bak transforms into a killer protein that destroys the cell.Institute researchers Sweta Iyer, PhD, Ruth Kluck, PhD, and colleagues unexpectedly discovered that an antibody they had produced to study Bak actually bound to the Bak protein and triggered its activation. They hope to use this discovery to develop drugs that promote cell death.
The researchers used information about Bak’s three-dimensional structure to find out precisely how the antibody activated Bak. “It is well known that Bak can be activated by a class of proteins called ‘BH3-only proteins’ that bind to a groove on Bak. We were surprised to find that despite our antibody binding to a completely different site on Bak, it could still trigger activation,” Kluck said. “The advantage of our antibody is that it can’t be ‘mopped up’ and neutralized by pro-survival proteins in the cell, potentially reducing the chance of drug resistance occurring.”