A powerful protein that protects women from the biological onslaught of pregnancy could be harnessed to prevent and treat a range of geriatric diseases, a recent study suggests.
Biological stresses created by pregnancy can induce protein damage – misfolding – in the pregnant mother’s body.
This misfolding can lead to preeclampsia – a pregnancy complication characterised by high maternal blood pressure and signs of kidney or liver damage that can endanger mum and baby.
Introducing pregnancy zone protein
Researchers led by Dr Amy Wyatt from Flinders University investigated how pregnant women’s bodies cope with protein misfolding.
They discovered that during pregnancy, women create an abundance of ‘pregnancy zone protein’ (PZP). The PZP stabilises the misfolded proteins, preventing them from forming plaques which lead to preeclampsia.
The researchers suggest the production of PZP during pregnancy represents a major maternal adaptation that helps to maintain protein homeostasis.
From pregnancy to aging
Protein homeostasis breaks down with aging and disease, causing protein aggregation, or plaques.
These plaques are not only associated with preeclampsia, but also with common ailments later in life including Alzheimer’s, arthritis and heart disease.
Amyloid beta peptide, for instance, which forms plaques in the placenta in preeclampsia, also forms plaques in the brain that are characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease.
Non-pregnant people can also produce PZP in response to certain diseases. Wyatt speculates this might be the body’s way to try and stop damaged proteins accumulating in response to stresses such as inflammation.
Exploring this is the next focus of their research. In the meantime, healthy lifestyle factors like diet and exercise can also reduce the risk of diseases with aging.