Autophagy (from the Greek self-eating) is a cellular mechanism which generates nutrients for the cell, primarily during times of starvation. Autophagy is also used to eliminate cell material that becomes damaged, leading to a periodic clean-up of the cell interior. Although it is a response by single cells, it is also very important for the health of an organism.
When autophagy is suppressed cells exhibit signs of oxidative damage because their dysfunctional mitochondria cannot be removed and continue to produce reactive oxygen species. Similarly, suppression of autophagy causes the build-up of mutant proteins that cause neurodegenerative disorders.
Autophagy is also critical for the neonatal period: animals which lack autophagy die soon after birth because they cannot generate nutrients during that time. Finally, autophagy is critical for the extension of lifespan in all organisms studied, and is therefore a significant factor that affects healthy ageing. The pathway of autophagy starts when a novel double membrane vesicle called an autophagosome is formed in the cell interior.
We have shown that one of the signals for formation of autophagosomes is the synthesis of a lipid called PI3P which leads to formation of omegasomes. These are membrane extensions of the endoplasmic reticulum, from which some autophagosomes emerge. We are studying exactly how this happens, both in terms of signals and of how the intermediate structures eventually lead to an autophagosome.
A Milner Institute enabled project in collaboration with ALBORADA Drug Discovery Institute, MRC Mitochondrial Biology Unit, Astex, Eisai and Eli Lilly and Company is underway in my lab. We are examining by siRNA, chemical inhibition and overexpression a limited set of genes implicated in autophagy to determine their role in neurodegeneration. The last stage of this work will use iPSC-derived neuronal cells that we have developed in my lab and originate either from healthy donors or from Alzheimer’s patients. Read more at:
I was very happy to speak at the University of Michigan Protein Folding Diseases seminar series and this talk provides a nice summary of the current work in my lab.
Autophagy is a tightly regulated catabolic process involved in the degradation and recycling of proteins and organelles. Ubiquitination plays an important role in the regulation of autophagy. Vacuole Membrane Protein 1 (VMP1) is an essential autophagy protein. The expression of VMP1 in pancreatic cancer stem cells carrying the activated Kirsten rat sarcoma viral oncogene homolog (KRAS) triggers autophagy and enables therapy resistance. Using biochemical and cellular approaches, we identified ubiquitination as a post-translational modification of VMP1 from the initial steps in autophagosome biogenesis. VMP1 remains ubiquitinated as part of the autophagosome membrane throughout autophagic flux until autolysosome formation. However, VMP1 is not degraded by autophagy, nor by the ubiquitin-proteasomal system. Mass spectrometry and immunoprecipitation showed that the cell division cycle protein cdt2 (Cdt2), the substrate recognition subunit of the E3 ligase complex associated with cancer, cullin-RING ubiquitin ligase complex 4 (CRL4), is a novel interactor of VMP1 and is involved in VMP1 ubiquitination. VMP1 ubiquitination decreases under the CRL inhibitor MLN4924 and increases with Cdt2 overexpression. Moreover, VMP1 recruitment and autophagosome formation is significantly affected by CRL inhibition. Our results indicate that ubiquitination is a novel post-translational modification of VMP1 during autophagy in human tumor cells. VMP1 ubiquitination may be of clinical relevance in tumor-cell-therapy resistance.
As a maturing field that continues to provide fundamental insights into cell physiology, autophagy is also beginning to attract considerable interest from the biotechnology/pharmaceutical sector. For this Editor's corner, I thought it would be both useful and interesting to talk with somebody who has spent a lot of time in the commercial sphere, working on autophagy and related processes. I was fortunate that Dr. Leon Murphy, Chief Scientific Officer at Casma therapeutics, was willing and able to answer my questions. In addition to his insights on the commercial interest for autophagy, Dr. Murphy also shared his personal experience on the scientific life working in large and small pharmaceutical companies.
Autophagy is a specialized catabolic process that selectively degrades cytoplasmic components, including proteins and damaged organelles. Autophagy allows cells to physiologically respond to stress stimuli and, thus, maintain cellular homeostasis. Cancer cells might modulate their autophagy levels to adapt to adverse conditions such as hypoxia, nutrient deficiency, or damage caused by chemotherapy. Ductal pancreatic adenocarcinoma is one of the deadliest types of cancer. Pancreatic cancer cells have high autophagy activity due to the transcriptional upregulation and post-translational activation of autophagy proteins. Here, the PANC-1 cell line was used as a model of pancreatic human cancer cells, and the AR42J pancreatic acinar cell line was used as a physiological model of highly differentiated mammalian cells. This study used the immunofluorescence of microtubule-associated protein light chain 3 (LC3) as an indicator of the status of autophagy activation. LC3 is an autophagy protein that, in basal conditions, shows a diffuse pattern of distribution in the cytoplasm (known as LC3-I in this condition). Autophagy induction triggers the conjugation of LC3 to phosphatidylethanolamine on the surface of newly formed autophagosomes to form LC3-II, a membrane-bound protein that aids in the formation and expansion of autophagosomes. To quantify the number of labeled autophagic structures, the open-source software FIJI was utilized with the aid of the "3D Objects Counter" tool. The measure of the autophagic levels both in physiological conditions and in cancer cells allows us to study the modulation of autophagy under diverse conditions such as hypoxia, chemotherapy treatment, or the knockdown of certain proteins.