Scientists at the University of Leeds have raised hopes for the development of new treatments for inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, by identifying how atoms move across cell membranes in the human body.
The researchers have found a previously unidentified natural mechanism that opens ion channels, proteins at the cell surface that act as doorways into and out of cells, through the naturally occurring protein thioredoxin.
Ion channels regulate the flow of ions, electrically charged atoms, across the cell membrane to conduct various functions such as timing of the heartbeat, pain transmission and regulation of blood glucose.
Often, they need to be stimulated to open and, so far, two main groups of activating mechanisms have been recognized: changes in cell voltage and binding of chemical factors.
Professor Beech and colleagues from the university's Faculty of Biological Sciences have revealed that thioredoxin's working is different, it activates an ion channel by donating electrons to it, a process Professor Beech likens to 'an electronic on-switch'.
"Thioredoxin is naturally present in cells and is secreted to help the body counter stressful chemical reactions that occur in inflammation, which can damage cells," Nature quoted him, as saying.
"We already knew that inflammatory diseases cause the production of high levels of thioredoxin - in fact with rheumatoid arthritis, it's striking how much is present in affected joints. But we didn't know until now that thioredoxin can also activate ion channels, conferring additional protective potential and offering opportunities for mimicking the effect with drugs.
"It would seem that the body's own natural defences have provided us with new understanding that could be significant in the development of future treatments for arthritis and related diseases," he added.
The study is published in the journal Nature.