A research team involving Queen Mary, University of London, has uncovered the process behind how vitamin B12 is made in cells. They claim the discovery could lead to developing new cancer treatment drugs.
The scientists, including Professor Richard Pickersgill based at Queen Mary’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences, devised a method that allows the researchers to study how the individual steps for vitamin B12 construction are pieced together. Their findings are published in the journal Nature Chemical Biology, the leading scientific journal in the field.
B12 is an essential nutrient that plays an important role in the formation of red blood cells and the maintenance of the nervous system. Deficiencies are associated with anaemia, cardiovascular disorders and dementia.
Using techniques of the new discipline of synthetic biology, researchers engineered a conveyor belt of molecular machines for the construction of the vitamin within bacteria. By varying the length of the assembly line, they were able to unravel how the vitamin is manufactured.
Significantly, the team, which involved researchers from the University of Kent, were also able to alter some of the molecular machines on the conveyor belt and change the form of the vitamin that is made. It is hoped that these novel variant forms of the vitamin will act as important new drugs to treat diseases such as cancer and infections such as tuberculosis (TB).
Professor Pickersgill was pleased with the team’s findings. He said: “The fact that the product can be modified by engineering the enzymes but can still be processed by subsequent enzymes in the pathway, opens up exciting possibilities for new B12 derived medicines.”
Professor Martin Warren, the lead researchers, from the University of Kent, said: “This is a really important step forward. Vitamin B12 is a nutrient that is only made by bacteria and is not present in plants. Therefore a significant proportion of the world's population, including vegetarians, are at risk of B12 deficiency.
“Our work will assist in the generation of better ways of making more of this vitamin available and is also permitting us to make new compounds that will literally allow us to throw a spanner in the works of infections such as TB and diseases such as cancer.”
The research was funded by a research grant from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council to Professor Warren and Professor Pickersgill.
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