What if chronic diseases have a common cause?

Dressed in a white lab coat and with a glowing smile, a researcher chats with two people.

Heart disease, obesity, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s — most Canadians will die of these or other chronic diseases. Could all that human suffering stem from a common cause? If so, finding and fixing the problem would improve and extend millions of lives, and ease a growing burden on health care systems worldwide.

University of Ottawa biochemistry professor Zemin Yao believes a single key to curing chronic diseases does exist, and involves correcting impaired energy and waste-disposal processes in liver cells. “The cause of all these diseases is the same and starts in the liver,” he says. “Once you repair that problem, the rest will follow.”

Tests on numerous cell cultures have produced exciting results, with the abnormal protein deposits that cause Parkinson’s, for example, disappearing within two days.

“We still need to do a lot of research to prove our liver-centric view,” Yao says. “But so far, so good.”

Nowadays, eating too much and exercising too little has thrown our cellular energy system out of balance, he says. “And just as we don’t move as much when we get older, lysosomes in our cells also become lazy.”

Lysosomes are a scavenging mechanism designed to remove waste throughout the body. They move around in healthy cells, but become sluggish in diseased ones. An energy imbalance causes these cellular garbage trucks to stop moving, allowing proteins, fats and other substances to clog up our organs and cause disease.

In a complex biochemical process that involves injecting an energy-regulating enzyme into liver cells, Yao thinks he has found the switch to rebalance the cellular energy system and reboot lysosomes’ waste-removal efforts.

His theory that most, if not all, chronic diseases can be traced to an energy imbalance in liver cells was inspired by the central concepts of traditional Chinese medicine. Qi, our vital energy flow, is thought to be governed by the liver, while balance in the body’s characteristics of yin and yang is seen as key to good health.

“I had this notion about combining Eastern and Western medicine to find a better way to treat chronic disease,” Yao says. “Chinese medicine takes a systems approach and deals with diseases globally, not locally. Have a headache? A Chinese doctor will examine your liver. Once you fix the qi of the liver, you fix the qi of the brain.”

Born in Shanghai 65 years ago, Yao has lived more than half his life in Canada. After earning his PhD at the University of British Columbia, he was recruited in 1994 to lead a research lab at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute. From 2002 to 2013, he chaired uOttawa’s Department of Biochemistry, Microbiology and Immunology. He now teaches in both the faculties of Science and Medicine.

In the “next third” of his life, Yao hopes to see a class of drugs developed that will help clear our cells of the detritus that leads to chronic diseases. And he has another dream: to set up a University of Ottawa Metabolic Research Institute that will continue this cutting-edge research.

Support Zemin Yao and other researchers as they work to unravel major health mysteries.

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Zemin Yao stands in front of a plaque indicating the name of a research centre in English and Chinese.Professor Zemin Yao helped forge links between uOttawa and two universities of traditional Chinese medicine to form the China-Canada Centre of Research for Digestive Diseases.

 

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