Scientists used to think perforin had an inhibitory domain within its structure that was only removed once they were safely stored in the secretory granules. (The acidic environment within secretory granules keeps perforin inactive until its release.) But Voskoboinik's team purified perforin and found that the protein was always active regardless of whether they had removed the supposed inhibitory domain or not.
"It seeded doubt about how perforin is inhibited," he says. "It was a puzzle. Perforin was fully functional but for some reason it couldn't kill the cell [in which it was synthesized]."
The real danger zone for the cell when it comes to perforin is the ER, Voskoboinik explained. Conditions there should be ideal for perforin to work, but something keeps it from doing so. The new study links that protection to a single amino acid at one end of the perforin protein. When that amino acid is substituted with another, perforin doesn't make it to the Golgi compartment, it builds up in the ER, and the cell dies.
"Perforin goes from zero to extremely high levels within 24 hours and it has everything it needs to be functional," Voskoboinik said. "The cell relies on a really efficient transport system to move perforin away from the danger zone and as a result the cell is absolutely protected."
The findings "close a chapter" in our understanding of the immune system that has existed in the field since perforin was discovered almost 25 years ago, Voskoboinik says. "It was one of those things that was out there on Olympus untouched. Everyone would just stare at it. That's what got us interested."
|Contact: Elisabeth Lyons|