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Christchurch scientist gets Marsden funding to look at Jekyll and Hyde chemical

Tuesday 29 October 2013 4:56pm

Professor Tony Kettle and his colleagues from the University of Otago, Christchurch (UOC), have won a Marsden Fund grant to better understand a ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ chemical with a role in heart disease, cancer, cystic fibrosis, and rheumatoid arthritis.

Professor Kettle, who is one of the directors of UOC’s Centre for Free Radical Research, was awarded $847,826 from the fund.

His is one of 109 successful Marsden Fund projects selected from a pool of 1157 proposals.

Professor Kettle will specifically investigate how and when chlorine bleach ties knots in proteins. Chlorine bleach is produced by white blood cells in our bodies to kill bacteria. However it also plays a negative role in inflammatory diseases by damaging essential proteins.

Kettle says new research suggests an oxidizing agent like chlorine bleach is generated by an enzyme in cells that produce connective tissue.

“The bleach is needed to strengthen collagen by linking its strands together to form a resilient protein mesh. Without this cross-linked mesh, individuals can develop cataracts and an autoimmune disease that destroys the kidneys and causes the lungs to hemorrhage. Chlorine bleach should be viewed as a natural chemical with a Jekyll and Hyde personality. It helps us to fight infections and form strong connective tissue but also endangers our health during uncontrolled inflammation.”

Professor Kettle and his team will develop new methods to identify the cross-links in proteins from inflammatory sites in patients with heart disease, cancer, cystic fibrosis, and rheumatoid arthritis. These methods will also help identify the essential cross-links in collagen, he says.

The Christchurch scientists will team up with researchers from Vienna and Budapest to understand how peroxidasin produces chlorine bleach and whether it is used to weave proteins into strong molecular structures.

Professor Kettle says knowledge from this grant will advance the understanding of how tissues are damaged during inflammation and show how the reactivity of chlorine bleach has been exploited by evolution to tie essential knots in the strands of collagen.