Friday, February 7, 2014

Two sides of a safety switch
The images were seen all over the world and stuck in the minds of many: in the autumn of 2004, former President of the Ukraine, Viktor Yushchenko, was poisoned with a high dose of dioxin. Although he survived the attack, the chloracne caused by the poisoning, officially known as MADISH, left him severely disfigured: his face was peppered with numerous cysts, which left deep scars.
Now a team of researchers headed by ETH-Zurich professor Sabine Werner and a senior researcher of her team, Dr. Matthias Schäfer, has stumbled across a link between chloracne and a molecular switch, which causes a comparable skin phenotype in mice after longer and increased activation. The new discovery has just been published in EMBO Molecular Medicine.
Interesting candidate
The molecular switch is Nrf2, which the ETH-Zurich researchers have been studying in connection with different skin diseases for some time. Nrf2 is a so-called transcription factor. It activates certain genes that protect cells and help them to survive under stress conditions. The ETH-Zurich scientists had discovered that a moderate activation of Nrf2 protects the skin against UV damage (see ETH Life from 20 May 2010). The molecule activates several genes designed to protect skin cells from aggressive free radicals, which are formed through UV radiation, save them from dying off and prevent damage of the genetic material.
Nrf2 is thus an interesting candidate for use in skincare creams and for cancer prevention. Until now, however, the consequences of prolonged Nrf2 activation in the skin had not been characterized. After all, in a previous study Werner and Schäfer realised that the skin of mice became flaky and was thus potentially damaged upon increased activation of Nrf2.

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