What does a pregnancy protein have to do with geriatric diseases?

Thursday, 14 March, 2019

What does a pregnancy protein have to do with geriatric diseases?

Like the potential of embryonic stem cells to curb ageing, researchers are now investigating a powerful protein in the blood of pregnant woman which could be used to find ways to treat and even prevent a wide range of age-related disorders, from Alzheimer’s and arthritis to macular degeneration and heart disease.

Pregnancy is a unique physiological state involving biological stresses that promote protein damage (misfolding) within the maternal body. The new research delves into the way the maternal body copes with elevated protein misfolding, which is a process connected to preeclampsia — a pregnancy disorder whereby women develop high blood pressure, with raised protein in their urine, which can put the mother and baby at risk.

According to Flinders University biomedical researcher Dr Amy Wyatt, the so-called pregnancy zone protein (PZP) stabilises misfolded proteins and prevents them from forming plaques, which are associated with the majority of common disorders in old age. Better understanding of how mothers normally deal with protein misfolding in pregnancy thus has the potential to inform the development of novel therapeutic strategies for some common and debilitating disorders of ageing.

“In this study, we show that PZP efficiently inhibits the aggregation of misfolded proteins including the amyloid beta peptide, which forms plaques in the placenta in preeclampsia and in the brain in Alzheimer’s disease,” said Dr Wyatt, who led a large multidisciplinary team as part of the study.

“This is the first evidence of a major maternal adaptation that allows mothers to withstand elevated levels of protein misfolding in pregnancy. Failure of this system potentially triggers the accumulation of misfolded proteins in preeclampisa, and could also have relevance to some age-related protein misfolding disorders.”

Dr Amy Wyatt and postgrad scientist Dr Noralyn Mañucat-Tan, who’s expecting her second baby after having an early delivery the first time around due to preeclampsia.

Published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the paper proposes that pregnant women make a tremendous investment in generating large amounts of PZP to help maintain protein homeostasis during pregnancy. This ‘chaperone’ function of PZP could also be more broadly important in humans since men and women can experience elevated PZP levels independent of pregnancy.

Dr Wyatt is now building on the findings by studying why non-pregnant people increase their production of PZP in certain diseases, stating, “We think this might be the body’s way of trying to prevent the accumulation of damaged proteins which arises then the body experiences stresses such as inflammation.

“Another thing we still need to figure out is exactly how cells of the body dispose of misfolded proteins after they are stabilised by PZP.”

Top image credit: ©stock.adobe.com/au/Halfpoint

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