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Sunday November 20, 2011

Breakthrough discovery

MALAYSIAN researchers from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) and counterparts from other regions have found a highly potent toxin which holds the key to how bacteria acts and causes cells of an infected person to die.

Results of the discovery by the researchers, which included those from the Malaysia Genome Institute (MGI), and their international collaborators from the United Kingdom (UK) and Singapore, were published in the Nov 11, 2011 issue of Science, the world’s leading journal of original scientific research.

According to the UKM news portal, the group named the toxin Burkholderia Lethal Factor 1 (BLF1). The toxin prevents cells from an infected body from synthesising proteins.

This led to a major breakthrough in unravelling how the bacteria Burkholderia pseudomallei - which causes the deadly disease melioidosis - acts on and causes the death of infected host cells.

Leader of the Malaysian component of the research for the last 15 years, Prof Dr Rahmah Mohamed who is with the School of Biosciences and Biotechnology at UKM’s Faculty of Science and Technology, said an outcome of the disruption of this important process is that cells begin to die, leading to organ failure and death.

“This finding is a major breakthrough in unravelling how the bacteria acts on and causes death of infected hosts,” she said.

Prof Rahmah, who is UKM deputy vice-chancellor (Research and Innovation Affairs), said that after more than three decades of research at the university, the mystery that surrounds the disease melioidosis has been deciphered.

Other members of the Malaysian research team are Prof Sheila Nathan and Dr Firdaus Mohd Raih, also from UKM’s Faculty of Science and Technology and MGI director-general Emeritus Prof Nor Muhammad Mahadi.

UKM vice-chancellor Prof Tan Sri Dr Sharifah Hapsah Syed Hasan Shahabudin said the discovery was significant, not only for its scientific value but also because it served to show the importance of international collaboration.

“The university is proud of the team. I hope the story will be a source of inspiration to other researchers for them to know that big dreams are achievable,” she said.

The researchers from UKM and MGI worked closely with a consortium of laboratories from the UK, namely the Krebs Institute at the University of Sheffield, the University of Exeter and the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory.

Their joint effort was also supplemented by researchers in Singapore from the Defence Medical and Environmental Research Institute, DSO National Laboratories and the Genome Institute of Singapore.

Prof Rahmah said a variety of grants were received to conduct the research programme, which was to discover the function of Burkholderia pseudomallei proteins of unknown function through the use of genomics, structural biology and bioinformatics.

The breakthrough, she added, is evident of the need for international collaborations as scientific investigations today had become more and more multi-disciplinary.

She said the consortium, comprising 28 researchers including the Malaysians, are now planning to ask for further research funding to carry on with their work beyond melioidosis.

The group is also exploring the potential application of BLF-1 in cancer therapy.

She said that there is currently no available vaccine for melioidosis, a life-threatening disease that has increasingly become a major health challenge in Malaysia and other South-East Asian countries.

The bacteria that causes the infection thrives in the hot wet soils found in the region.

Melioidosis gained notoriety as the cause of death of several men involved in a search and rescue operation of a drowning victim at the Lubuk Yu recreational area in Maran, Pahang in July 2010.

“It’s a vital research breakthrough that can lead to many health applications. It has not only resolved a longstanding question about the molecular mechanism of the disease, but also opened up doors that can lead to prevention and treatment of melioidosis; especially with the recent rise of B. pseudomallei strains that are resistant to multiple drugs,” Prof Rahmah said.

She added that the elucidation of the structure of BLF-1 protein may lead to vaccine development and better treatment of melioidosis in the future.