A landmark study by researchers at the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and Stanford University reveals how a tiny cellular machine called TRiC directs the folding of tubulin, a human protein that is the building block of microtubules that serve as the cell’s scaffolding and transport system.

Until now, scientists thought TRiC and similar machines, known as chaperonins, passively provide an environment conducive to folding, but don’t directly participate in it.

Up to 10% of the proteins in our cells, as well as those in plants and animals, get hands-on help from these little chambers in folding into their final, active shapes, the researchers estimated.

Many of the proteins that fold with the aid of TRiC are intimately linked to human diseases, including certain cancers and neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson’s, Huntington’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, said Stanford Professor Judith Frydman, one of the study’s lead authors.

In fact, she said, a lot of anti-cancer drugs are designed to disrupt tubulin and the microtubules it forms, which are really important for cell division. So targeting the TRiC-assisted tubulin folding process could provide an attractive anti-cancer strategy.

The team reported the results of their decade-long study in a paper published in Cell today.

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