When muscles become acidic after doing too many push-ups, squats, or cycling to work, it’s due to lactic acid.
Tight muscles produce energy quickly, and a by-product of this process is lactic acid. But lactic acid is also abundant in cancer cells, which invest a lot of energy in dividing and forming tumors.
Now a new study from the University of Copenhagen shows that certain enzymes can remove lactic acid labels from proteins, and the researchers hope this will increase our understanding of how cancer drugs work, among other things.
“The ultimate goal is of course to develop drugs with as few side effects as possible,” says Professor Christian Adam Olsen from the Chair of Drug Design and Pharmacology, who is responsible for the new study. He adds:
“The more knowledge we can gain about the enzymes that can remove lactic acid stains, the easier it will be to develop new drug candidates that can target those specific enzymes. So the discovery may have implications for the development of new cancer drugs targeting these enzymes.”
The process that leads to lactic acid both helps the body in connection with exercise, for example, and spoils it in connection with cancer. Therefore, it is interesting to determine how lactic acid levels affect human cells.
As part of the study, Christian Adam Olsen and the rest of the research team – which includes a team at the University of Chicago led by Professor Yingming Zhao – grew healthy human cells as well as cancer cells in the lab.
Several of their experiments involve breaking up the cells to examine the different parts in more detail with specific antibodies. However, they also examined living cells directly using reagents that are able to make selected cell components fluorescent.
According to the study’s first author, postdoc at the University of Copenhagen, Carlos Moreno-Yruela, this showed that these specific enzymes actually remove lactic acid stains.
“Lactic acid levels increased significantly when we removed these enzymes. The same thing happened when we inhibited the enzymes with existing cancer drugs,” says Carlos Moreno-Yruela.
The researchers not only hope that the results of the new study can contribute to the development of new cancer drugs, but believe that their discovery will expand our understanding of epigenetics.
Because the lactic acid in our cells can end up as epigenetic marks that affect how genes are read. Unlike genetics – which we inherit from our parents – our epigenetics can change over the course of life.
Diet, sleep and physical activity are some of the factors that can affect our epigenetics, as previous research has shown.
“We still don’t know if lactic acid markers are inherited. But if they are, it could be interesting to study the possible effects of, for example, diet, sleep and physical activity on next-generation epigenetic marks. To answer such a question.” , you might start with, e.g. to study mice or other animal models,” concludes Christian Adam Olsen.
Research conducted at the University of Copenhagen was funded by the Independent Research Fund Denmark and an ERC Consolidator Grant.