Speak Friend and Enter: How Cells Let the Right Travelers through their Doors

For decades, it’s been a molecular mystery that scientists were seemingly unable to solve: how do large molecules pass through the cell and into the nucleus, while others half their size remain stranded outside?

These are nuclear pores imaged by atomic force microscopy, appearing as a craterlike landscape in which each crater corresponds to a pore of ~100 nm diameter. [Credit: UCL]

Nuclear pores imaged by atomic force microscopy, appearing as a crater-like landscape in which each crater corresponds to a pore of ~100 nm diameter. [Credit: UCL]

But as reported in the latest issue of Nature Nanotechnology, researchers now believe they may have cracked the case. By shedding light on this strange anomaly, University College London (UCL) scientists have opened the door for one day delivering gene therapies directly into the nucleus. With numerous research teams working on ways to merge stem cell therapy and gene therapy, this could be extremely valuable to our field.

Scientists already knew that the membrane that surrounds the cell’s nucleus is ‘punctured’ with millions of tiny holes, known as nuclear pores. Co-lead author Bart Hoogenboom likened the pores to a strange kind of sieve:

“The pores have been to known to act like a sieve that could hold back sugar while letting grains of rice fall through at the same time, but it was not clear how they were able to do that.”

In this study—which used cells taken from frog eggs—Hoogenboom, along with co-lead author Ariberto Fassati, harnessed atomic force microscopy (AFM) to give them a new understanding of how these pores work. Like a blind person moving their fingers to read braille, AFM uses a tiny needle to pass over the nuclear pores in order to measure their shape and structure.

“AFM can reveal far smaller structures than optical microscopes,” said Hoogenboom, “but it’s feeling more than seeing. The trick is to press hard enough to feel the shape and the hardness of the sample, but not so hard that you break it. [In this study], we used it to successfully probe the membrane…to reveal the structure of the pores.”

And what they found, adds Fassati, offered an explanation for how these pores worked:

“We found that the proteins in the center of the pores tangle together just tightly enough to form a barrier—like a clump of spaghetti. Large molecules can only pass through [the pores] when accompanied by chaperone molecules. These chaperones, called nuclear transport receptors, have the property of lubricating the [spaghetti] strands and relaxing the barrier, letting the larger molecules through.”

Astoundingly, Fassati said that this process happens upwards of several thousand times per second.

These results are exciting not only for solving a long-standing mystery, but also for pointing to new ways of delivering gene therapies.

As evidenced by recent clinical advances in conditions such as sickle cell disease and SCID (‘bubble baby’ disease), gene therapy represents a promising way to treat—and even cure—patients. Hoogenboom and Fassati are optimistic that their team’s discovery could lead further refinements to gene therapy techniques.

Said Fassati, “It may be possible to improve the design of current mechanisms for delivering gene therapy to better cross the nuclear pores and deliver their therapeutic genes into the nucleus.”

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