Research published in Nature magazine uncovers missing link in Louis Pasteur’s Life without Oxygen theory

Posted on Sunday, May 6, 2012

OTTAWA, May 6, 2012 — Dr. Stephen Lee, a professor in the Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine at the University of Ottawa, has made a breakthrough that answers a question Louis Pasteur and countless others have struggled with for 150 years: “How do bodily cells function when we are at a high altitude where the air contains little oxygen?” In the paper “An Oxygen-Regulated Switch in the Protein Synthesis Machinery,” published in Nature, the world’s most prestigious scientific journal, Dr. Lee and his team, which includes Dr. James Uniacke, describe a new process that cells use to produce proteins in low-oxygen environments. These findings will fundamentally change our understanding of how mountaineers, Arctic explorers and athletes can adapt and thrive in conditions of reduced oxygen.

“Proteins are the building blocks of life,” explains Dr. Lee. “By discovering fermentation, Pasteur introduced the concept of ‘life without oxygen.’ What remained a mystery until now is how our cells make these building blocks in low-oxygen conditions in order to sustain life. This finding constitutes a significant missing piece of the puzzle and highlights how there are still many basic processes of life that remain undiscovered.”

Dr. Lee’s breakthrough has opened up possibilities in biomedical research for an array of oxygen-related conditions including gestation, stroke and heart disease. In addition, Dr. Lee’s team has already observed that cancer cells hijack this newly discovered process to form life-threatening tumors. The team is currently working on developing novel drugs that will be able to cure cancer by blocking this process.

About the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Ottawa
The University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Medicine is nationally recognized as a leader in medical research. Through their intense research activities, the Faculty of Medicine and affiliated research institute partners have contributed significantly to the following uOttawa milestones: the second-highest growth rate in overall Tri-Council Funding (all programs) since 2003, second in Canada by MacLean’s magazine for medical science grants and the third-highest growth rate in Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) funding for universities with medical schools since 2003.

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