Investment in science should be broad, as you never know what treasures may be discovered, a National Science Council (NSC) sponsored researcher said yesterday.
“In-depth biodiversity research should be encouraged,” said Grace Lo (羅竹芳), professor and dean at National Taiwan University’s College of Life Sciences.
Lo’s comments were based on her research on white spot syndrome virus (WSSV) in shrimps. In finding a cure for WSSV, Lo discovered a protein in the virus called ICP11 that could help kill tumor cells in humans.
The results were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in December.
WSSV has caused serious economic losses, and can wipe out a whole pond of shrimps in a week. Lo’s team began to study WSSV, hoping to find a cure.
“The WSSV genome is composed of some 500 proteins. What is interesting about the virus is that most of these proteins are unique and therefore their functions are unknown. As such, it is globally acknowledged that these proteins merit research,” Lo said.
Lo’s team identified ICP11 as its first target, as the commonest protein in the WSSV genome.
Last year, Lo’s team joined forces with Academia Sinica vice president Andrew Wang’s (王惠鈞) lab. Wang contributed to a defining breakthrough when he identified ICP11 as a “DNA mimic protein,” meaning that it looked and functioned like DNA, Lo said.
“This finding alone is invaluable — to date, fewer than 10 DNA mimic proteins have been identified worldwide ... I began to ponder why ICP11 looks like DNA and what function it serves,” she said.
Lo found that in vitro, ICP11 binds with histones, proteins that enable the compaction of DNA strands into chromosomes and give chromosomes their shape.
In other words, ICP11 competes with cell DNA to bind with histones and, “without histones, DNA strands will unwind, and the cell will die,” Lo said.
While in vitro histone proteins have similar attributes to ICP11 and DNA strands, Lo said she suspects that in vivo ICP11 is capable of ripping off histone proteins that are already attached to DNA strands.
The finding could contribute to the development of a whole new variety of cancer drugs, as all tumor cells have DNA, and a drug that disassembles DNA would be deadly to all of them, Lo said.
Lo said her team was working on finding way to get ICP11 to function in the body, but her interest in WSSV will not end there.
“WSSV may be a treasure trove — we have identified another 10 proteins in it that are worth researching, just like ICP11,” she said.