MOVE OVER X-MEN, IMB’s SUPERFISH IS COMING
What could possibly be the link between the famous comic super heroes X-men, a super fish that can withstand high temperatures and a probable cure for cancer?
A clue: the link is currently being researched at IMB.
It may seem far-fetched at the moment but the work of Assoc Prof Dr Yeong Yik Sung could well be the key to creating superhuman abilities that mimics the superheroes featured in comic books.
Dr Yeong does not look the least like the professor in the X-men comic but his work on heat shock proteins (HSPs) has the potential of creating the fast-healing properties in living organisms, much like what is attributed to the X-men.
“HSPs are present in all living things. Their main function is to repair other proteins damaged by stress,” said Dr Yeong.
“For example, if an organism experiences a physical or biological stress, the stress will damage the proteins in the organism,” he said.
“Let’s say a fish living in 28 degree Celcius water was suddenly transferred to a container with water at 40 degrees Celcius. The fish will definitely die from the heat shock (physical stress) as a high level of proteins in its body is damaged by the stress,” he said.
Dr Yeong said the amazing thing about HSPs is that they could prevent excessive protein damage if they were secreted before the introduction of the stress.
“Not only do they repair damaged proteins but the HSPs also significantly increase the organism’s resistance to physical and biological stresses,” he said.
“In the case of the fish, if we induce the secretion of HSPs before increasing the water temperature to 40 degrees Celcius, it will survive the experiment,” he said.
He said increased HSPs secretion will also protect fish or shrimp against other physical stresses such as salinity change and biological stresses such as diseases.
According to Dr Yeong, this characteristic can be used to increase aquatic organisms’ ability to resist diseases and it could also give them the ability to thrive in environments that are normally not conducive for them.
“Protection against vibriosis, a deadly aquatic disease caused by the vibrios bacteriawas significantly enhanced in animals primed with a non-lethal heat shock, with extensive data supporting a causal link between Hsp70 induced by abiotic stress and enhanced resistance to infection, perhaps via stimulation of the immune system”.
“Though Hsp70 has a role in protection, the mechanism involved in the induced disease tolerance is still unknown. Hsp70 has different sub-families and in this context, it is crucial to identify which Hsp70 isotypes contribute to immunity”.
He said improving the organisms’ immunity is the second way in which HSPs work.
“If a person gets a fever, the body temperature will rise as HSPs are secreted to help repair the cells that were damaged by the onset of the fever.”
“However, if the HSPs secretion was increased before the onset of an infection, then the infection can be prevented as the person’s immune system will be boosted,” he said, adding that HSPs are molecules that can activate human or aquatic organisms’ immunity system.
However, there is a big problem with the use of HSPs to increase a human or animal tolerance to stress.
“The most effective way to increase HSPs secretion is by heat shock but this is not a good method as it could be lethal if incorrectly administered,” he said.
“So now we are working to identify bioactive compounds that can mimic the effects of heat shock to increase HSPs secretion,” he said.
So, will we be able to see a superhuman, loaded up with HSPs, who is able walk through a wall of fire unscathed soon?
With a smile, Dr Yeong shook his head to indicate that the above scenario is still too far-fetched, at least for now.
“We do not have any product yet but we do have the fundamental data supporting HSPs ability to increase organisms’ tolerance to stresses,” he said.
“We had just started our quest to find non-lethal methods to increase HSPs secretion,” he said, adding that this could be a big help for the aquaculture industry.
“If we could find a bioactive compound that can increase HSPs in fish and shrimps, we can incorporate this into their feed, thus increasing their tolerance to diseases and environments that are previously less conducive for aquaculture,” he said.
Dr Yeong said such developments could also have a value-added aspect to aquaculture.
“Live fish fetches higher prices but it is difficult to transport live fish as the stress of being transported from one place to another could easily kill them,”
“However, with increased HSPs, the fish will have a better survival ratio as they would be able to tolerate the physical stresses of transportation,” he said.
He revealed that the research in HSPs could also lead to a cure for cancer.
“Researchers have been pursuing HSPs as an alternative treatment for cancer. Cancer cells need HSPs to replicate, so if we can block the particular HSPs then we can stop the cancer,” he said.
So, even if we cannot have a superhuman like the X-men, HSPs could still be the magic ingredient in the fight against cancer.
When that becomes reality, IMB can be proud to say that their quest for a super fish has had a hand in the search for the future cure of cancer.