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Tiny worm points to big promise

Studies identify promising genes and small molecules to use against devastating diseases

January 2012

Two related studies from Northwestern University offer new strategies for tackling the challenges of preventing and treating diseases of protein folding, such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and Huntington's diseases, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), cancer, cystic fibrosis and type 2 diabetes.

To do its job properly within the cell, a protein first must fold itself into the proper shape. If it doesn't, trouble can result. More than 300 diseases have at their root proteins that misfold, aggregate and eventually cause cellular dysfunction and death.

The new Northwestern research identifies new genes and pathways that prevent protein misfolding and toxic aggregation, keeping cells healthy, and also identifies small molecules with therapeutic potential that restore health to damaged cells, providing new targets for drug development.

The genetic screening study is published by the journal PLoS Genetics. The small molecule study is published by the journal Nature Chemical Biology. "These discoveries are exciting because we have identified genes that keep us healthy and small molecules that keep us healthy," said Richard I. Morimoto, PhD, who led the research. "Future research should explain how these two important areas interact."

Morimoto is the Bill and Gayle Cook Professor of Biology in the department of molecular biosciences and the Rice Institute for Biomedical Research in Northwestern's Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. He also is a scientific director of the Chicago Biomedical Consortium and a member of the Lurie Cancer Center.

(Last updated on June 25, 2013 )