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Researchers uncover ways to help cells survive after a stroke


Ottawa, ON – A cellular energy production mechanism has been discovered by researchers from the University of Ottawa Brain and Mind Research Institute. In the study findings, published in Nature Communications on April 1, the researchers say the discovery could significantly advance recovery for stroke patients.

When a person suffers a stroke, oxygen—a vital component for cell survival in the human brain—is cut off. This loss of oxygen not only causes immediate cell death in the primary stroke area, but also puts the cells in the surrounding areas at risk. If their ability to produce energy is not restored, they will eventually die. With this in mind, researchers worked to understand what happens to cellular energy production in affected cells and what could be done to help salvage them.

“It was originally thought that acidification was a bad thing for the cell, but when we revisited this theory, we found that mild acidification actually protected the cell, helping to maintain its survival after stroke,” says Mireille Khacho, a postdoctoral fellow in the Ruth Slack Laboratory at the uOttawa Brain and Mind Research Institute, part of the Faculty of Medicine.

Mitochondria are important structures within the cell that produce energy, which is essential for cellular function and vitality. Khacho identified a novel mechanism by which energy production could be maintained following stroke. Specifically, she showed that mild acidification allowed cells to preserve energy production in low-oxygen conditions, such as those seen during a stroke. In fact, she found that acidification not only prevented cells from dying, but ultimately allowed them to thrive in low-nutrient, low-oxygen conditions.

“This study is unique in that it shows that you can reconfigure the mitochondria of a cell at a time when they would typically self-destruct,” says Khacho.

The research was based at the Ruth Slack Laboratory at the University of Ottawa Brain and Mind Research Institute and supported by the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Ontario, Brain Canada/Krembil Foundation and the HSF Canadian Partnership for Stroke Recovery.