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Disturbance wanted – Newly characterized protein interaction may help in search for new cancer-fighting drugs

2016-10-20 / Some anticancer agents intend to disturb the function of the p97 protein complex, which is essential for survival of cancer cells. A team of researchers of the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in the Helmholtz Association (MDC) has now found a way to break up the p97 complex into its subunits and published their results in Nature Communications.


Graphic by Anup Arumughan,MDC.

Many proteins organize in so-called protein complexes, joining forces to fulfill certain tasks. The ring-shaped p97 protein complex is such a molecular machine, which consists of an assembly of six identical subunits and is involved in disposal of cellular garbage and other tasks. Cancer cells produce particularly large amounts of protein and therefore a lot of waste, that’s why p97 is essential for their survival.

For this reason, disturbing the function of the p97 complex may be a promising new way to kill proliferating cancerous cells in a targeted manner. “The idea is, if we block this protein the cellular protein garbage will not be cleared, the cell gets choked with its own garbage and commits suicide,” says researcher Dr. Anup Arumughan, who plays a leading role in the project. Several research groups have been trying to inhibit p97 selectively using drugs, but with limited success.

Working in the lab of MDC group leader Prof. Erich Wanker and collaborating with Dr. Yvette Roske and Prof. Udo Heinemann as well as with several other MDC labs, Arumughan identified a protein which not only inhibits, but also dissembles the p97 machine.

Looking for a new way to disrupt p97
Arumughan used the “yeast two hybrid” method in yeast cells to identify proteins that like to mingle with p97. Because this type of yeast experiments is often unreliable, he used its results as a basis for a new series of experiments with mammalian cell cultures. This combination of experiments created a catalog of proteins interacting with p97 with different affinities.

ASPL disrupts p97 particularly well
A protein called ASPL with high affinity p97 showed up in the tests. ASPL, just as p97, is a component of the cellular waste disposal. On closer inspection, it turned out that the ASPL broke p97 into its subunits: “The six subunits of p97 have an immense attraction to each other. I would have thought it would extremely hard or just impossible to disrupt such a stable protein complex,” Arumughan says.

To better understand the effect of ASPL on p97, Arumughan and his colleagues studied the three-dimensional structure of the binding partners. Instead of a circular structure of six subunits, they found a tetrameric complex of two p97 and ASPL molecules each.

A fragment of ASPL is sufficient to break the bond
In further experiments Arumughan identified the part of ASPL which can disrupt the p97 hexamer. The researcher trimmed the ASPL protein down to a section which exists also in numerous other proteins in a similar form. The fragment, known as “UBX”, usually recognizes and binds to the p97 protein complex. In ASPL however, the UBX module does not only serve for docking to p97, but also to break it down into its subunits: “It seems as if nature took a known binding motif, and just attached two additional arms in order to get the job done,” Arumughan says about the newly found protein fragment now called “extended UBX” (eUBX).

A boost for cancer research
ASPL or its eUBX module cannot be used as cancer treatments. The molecules are so large that they cannot penetrate into the cell from the outside.

However, it now may be easier to find smaller molecules, which act in a manner similar to ASPL. “Our findings could help others to identify drugs that disrupt the structure of p97, in the same manner as ASPL does”, group leader Erich Wanker says. But first the researchers want to find out about which cellular function the newly discovered p97/ASPL complex fulfills, because this is still completely unknown.


Anup Arumughan1, Yvette Roske1, Carolin Barth1, Laura Lleras Forero1, Kenny Bravo-Rodriguez4, Alexandra Redel1, Simona Kostova1, Erik Mcshane1, Robert Opitz1, Katja Faelber1, Kirstin Rau1, Thorsten Mielke2, Oliver Daumke1, Matthias Selbach1, Elsa Sanchez-Garcia4, Oliver Rocks1, Daniela Panáková1, Udo Heinemann1,3, Erich E. Wanker1 (2016): Quantitative interaction mapping reveals an extended UBX domain in ASPL that disrupts functional p97 hexamers.“ Nature Communications. doi:10.1038/NCOMMS13047

1Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine, Berlin, Germany; 2Max Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics, Berlin, Germany; 3Institute for Chemistry and Biochemistry, Freie Universität Berlin, Berlin, Germany; 4Max-Planck-Institute for Coal Research, Mülheim an der Ruhr, Germany

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