A research team at the University of Virginia's (UVA) School of Medicine has figured out a mechanism to control the performance of cellular "batteries" known as mitochondria. The findings could open the door to better treatments for many common diseases, including Alzheimer's and diabetes.
All cells in our body rely on mitochondria for energy production and many chronic diseases—also known as noncommunicable diseases—such as diabetes, heart failure and Alzheimer's are caused by problems of the mitochondria in the cells.
During the study, UVA's Zhen Yan discovered special sensors on the outer membrane surrounding the mitochondria in various tissues in both mice and humans. These sensors detect "energetic stress," and signal for damaged mitochondria to be degraded and removed.
This essential cleanup process is known as "mitophagy," and its existence was first suggested more than 100 years ago. But how it works has never been fully understood. Now, Yan and his colleagues have offered long-sought answers in their new study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on September 8.
Yan and his colleagues found that the mitochondrial sensors, known as "mitoAMPK," exist in slightly different forms in different tissues. In the new scientific paper outlining their findings, the researchers describe the variety of sensors as "unexpectedly complex." They go on to outline how these sensors provide a vital damage-control system that safeguards our cellular energy supply provided by the mitochondria.
One study showed that treating mice with metformin, the most effective, first-line anti-diabetes drug, activates mitoAMPK in skeletal muscles without activating AMPK in the other parts of the cells.
The finding is the best illustration of the importance of activating mitoAMPK and mitochondrial quality control in treatment of a common chronic disease that is known to be caused by accumulation of dysfunctional mitochondria in our body.
"The new insights gained into mitochondrial quality control will boost efforts to develop new treatments for non-communicable diseases that have reached pandemic proportions and are estimated to cause 71% of all deaths," Yan said in a report.