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The Warsaw Voice » The Polish Science Voice » December 21, 2012
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An Exceptional Protein
December 21, 2012   
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A small protein called chemerin plays a big role in the body’s immune response to disease, a group of Polish researchers based in Cracow have found.

The protein directs the body’s immune cells to wherever an inflammation begins. What’s more, it can also kill fungi and bacteria, according to the researchers, who hail from the Department of Immunology at the Faculty of Biochemistry, Biophysics and Biotechnology of the Jagiellonian University in Cracow.

Most immune cells are found in the blood, but they are also present in lymph nodes and the spleen. At a time when microorganisms invade the body, these cells, to defend the body against disease, must move to where the inflammation occurs. Chemerin plays a role in directing them there.

“Chemerin is a protein molecule that has been repeatedly studied by scientists due to its various functions,” says Joanna Cichy from the Faculty of Biochemistry, Biophysics and Biotechnology of the Jagiellonian University. “Following the interest it aroused in the early 1990s, scientists began looking at it again with renewed vigor in recent years. One of the key questions that the researchers in my team asked themselves was: How does chemerin influence the movement of these cells and what implications does this have for the body’s immune response.”

Cichy’s research team is working as part of the TEAM program of the Foundation for Polish Science and is using a grant from the National Science Center. The project is called “A new look at the role of chemerin in physiological processes and the pathogenesis of immune diseases.”

It is known that chemerin is activated by some of the enzymes secreted by the cells of the immune system. An active form of chemerin is found in some bacteria and in people with autoimmune disorders, for example on the skin of patients with psoriasis and in the synovial fluid of those suffering from rheumatoid arthritis. Researchers believe that chemerin not only controls the movement of cells, but also has an anti-inflammatory effect. Moreover, chemerin controls the formation of fat cells, which is important in metabolic problems such as type 2 diabetes and obesity.

U.S. scientists have discovered that chemerin is strongly activated, for example during the treatment of skin diseases such as psoriasis and skin cancer, with tazarotene, a drug based on derivatives of vitamin A, says Cichy.

Cichy took an interest in chemerin while on a Fulbright scholarship at Stanford University in California in the United States. At the time, researchers there were studying the cell migration process in a project led by Prof. E.C. Butcher and B.A. Zabel, Ph.D.

The researchers at the Jagiellonian University are focusing on autoimmune diseases, which means diseases in which the body mistakenly dispatches T cells or antibodies to attack its own tissues. The researchers are trying to determine what controls the movement of so-called dendritic cells, which initiate the malfunctioning of T cells or antibodies, in the case of disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis or psoriasis. Getting the right answer to this question could help millions of people worldwide suffering from these painful diseases.

In the case of psoriasis, chemerin plays an important role. The researchers have focused on studying the mechanisms behind the activation of this protein—different in the deeper layers of the skin than in the epidermis. Once they identified a group of proteolytic enzymes, or particles responsible for the activation of chemerin, they managed to reach the part of the protein which shows how the protein really works. This discovery could increase the effectiveness of treatment.

At the same time, the researchers managed to discover new functions of other particles present in the skin, such as the secretory leukocyte proteinase inhibitor (SLPI), which can also affect the inflammatory process in people suffering from psoriasis, though in a manner different from that described previously by other researchers. The researchers have also showed that chemerin in the epidermis has additional antibacterial and antifungal functions. This means its effect is different than in the deeper parts of the skin, where it controls the inflow of immune system cells when the skin is damaged.

“Although we have managed to identify and discover new mechanisms, we still have a long way to go,” says Cichy. Completion of the TEAM project is scheduled for 2014.

The research team at the Jagiellonian University includes biochemists, biophysicists, doctors, biologists, biotechnologists, and students from the Department of Immunology at the Faculty of Biochemistry, Biophysics and Biotechnology.

Teresa Bętkowska
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