Autophagy: key to understanding how cells sustain themselves

Tamás Korcsmáros, Computational Biology Fellow at The Genome Analysis Centre (TGAC) and the Institute of Food Research (IFR), has led the development of an Autophagy Regulatory Network (ARN) online resource to further research in this human cellular process, to help combat cancer and neurodegenerative diseases.

Autophagy, derived from the Greek term for ‘eating of self’, is a complex physiological process that deals with the destruction of cells. Our bodies need to do this to maintain homeostasis or normal functioning by breaking down proteins and turnover of the destroyed cell organelles for new cell formation.

Research on autophagy is a growing field because understanding the basic mechanisms of autophagy is key to understanding how cells sustain themselves and is a promising therapeutic target in several molecular pathologies especially in cancer and neurodegenerative diseases. In the gut, malfunction of autophagy has been related to inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and cancer progression.

Published in this month’s Autophagy journal, the new online resource will provide an integrated and systems-level database for autophagy research. Autophagy Regulatory Network can be used to examine the autophagy system in humans for both global or for gene-specific studies and will assist researchers in their investigation of the autophagic process. As such it could be important in developing new pharmaceuticals against cancer and neurodegenerative diseases.

Alongside a team of scientists based in Hungary, Tamás has been studying systems regulation of autophagy in humans within TGAC’s Vertebrate & Health Genomics group and IFR’s Gut Health & Food Safety (GHFS) programme. The new resource was developed by studying systems regulation of autophagy in humans by curating existing scientific literature and integration of external resources that enables both computational and lab researchers, even those without computational backgrounds, to search, browse and download the database via the user-friendly ARN website.

Tamas, said: “This is going to be a gap-filling novel resource for all autophagy-related researchers. Similar in impact to the sequencing of a new genome, this resource will open lot of new doors in basic and translational science. IBD and cancer researchers will find it useful and also developmental biologists, biomedical researchers focusing on neurodegenerative or cardiac diseases as well as those who work with diabetes, due to the overall importance of autophagy in these cellular processes.”

Tamás plans to use ARN to identify major autophagy regulators targeted by intestinal pathogens, such as Salmonella, and to identify the systems-level change of cells in Crohn’s disease.

The paper, titled: Autophagy Regulatory Network—a systems-level bioinformatics resource for studying the mechanism and regulation of autophagy is published in Autophagy.

TGAC is strategically funded by BBSRC and operates a National Capability to promote the application of genomics and bioinformatics to advance bioscience research and innovation.

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