Hibernating squirrels give clues to stroke treatments for people

Hibernating squirrels give clues to stroke treatments for people

Hibernating squirrels give clues to stroke treatments for people

Yet the squirrels suffer no ill effects, thanks to a cellular process called SUMOylation.

The squirrels' capability to reduce blood flow to their brains during hibernation was deemed similar by scientists from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) to the ischemic stroke in humans. Doctors operating on stroke patients have to remove the clot as quickly as possible - the longer they take, the more likely it is for brain cells to have died, and for the sufferer to live with permanent disability if they survive at all.

Researchers in the United States have found that when squirrels hibernate, their cells undergo a protective process which allows their brains to work even with reduced oxygen and blood flow, The Telegraph reports.

When an ischemic stroke occurs, a person's blood supply - containing sugar and oxygen - is cut off to the brain, resulting in cells dying.

Squirrels could hold the key to helping stroke patients avoid brain damage, according to scientists.

Hibernating squirrels give clues to stroke treatments for people

Recently, researchers led by John Hallenbeck, M.D., an NINDS senior investigator and co-senior author of the current study, explored the possibility that enhanced SUMOylation helped animals' brains survive the reduced blood flow caused by hibernation. In experiments in cells and mice, the researchers confirmed their suspicions.

If we could only turn on the process hibernators appear to use to protect their brains, we could help protect the brain during a stroke and ultimately help people recover.

SUMOylation, which involves post-translational modification of Small Ubiquitin-like Modifier Proteins, has been shown to maintain brain function in hibernating squirrels, and can be upregulated with injections of the enzyme ebselen. "If the compound identified in this study successfully reduces tissue death and improves recovery in further experiments, it could lead to new approaches for preserving brain cells after an ischemic stroke". Other enzymes called SUMO-specific proteases (SENPs) can then detach those tags, thereby decreasing SUMOylation. From an initial list of 4,000 molecules, the team used computer modelling and further tests to narrow the shortlist down to eight which might help kickstart the SUMOylation process. The researchers now plan to test whether ebselen can protect the brains of animal models of stroke.

The researchers found that of the thousands of molecules, two ebselen and 6-thioguanine could both boost SUMOylation in rat cells and keep them alive in the absence of oxygen and glucose. 6-thioguanine was not tested because it is a chemotherapy drug with side effects that make it unsuitable as a potential stroke treatment.

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