Diabetes Linked To Elastic Protein Damage In Heart, Lungs

People living with diabetes are at risk for damage to elasticity of the heart and lungs, according to a new study. When specific types of protein in the body are exposed to sugar, they can no longer function.

The discovery was made by a team of researchers from the University of Washington and Boston University. The elastic proteins involved in the study are found in organs that stretch and retract, such as the heart and lungs. The architecture and support of healthy connective tissues are aided by an electrical property called ferroelectricity, found in the proteins.

Ferroelectricity was recently discovered in animal tissue and is defined as "a response to an electric field in which a molecule switches from having a positive to a negative charge."               

"This finding is important because it tells us the origin of the ferroelectric switching phenomenon and also suggests it's not an isolated occurrence in one type of tissue as we thought. This could be associated with aging and diabetes, which I think gives more importance to the phenomenon," said Jiangyu Li, a UW associate professor of mechanical engineering. Li is one of the co-corresponding authors in the study.

For the study, the researchers separated the aortic tissue from a pig into two protein types, collagen and elastin. Elastin is responsible for helping the heart and lungs stretch and retract. Elastin flexibility required to perform repeated pulses is a result of ferroelectric switching.  When researchers exposed the elastin to high glucose (sugar) levels, they found that the ferroelectric switching was prevented by 50 percent. In a natural process called glycation, sugar molecules strip down the structure and function of proteins by attaching to them. This process occurs with age and is associated with diabetes and high blood pressure.

Li and his colleagues discovered the existence of ferroelectricity in mammal tissue, which was a surprising find. Ferroelectricity is found in synthetic material used for memory storage and sensors.  The next step for researchers will be to investigate the molecular workings of ferroelectric switching. The findings of the study were published in the Physical Review Letters journal on April 15.  

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