UR Researcher Wins Prestigious Award for Life's Work

Local woman beats out hundreds of other candidates from around the world

December 16, 1999

Mahin Maines, Ph.D., has won this year's National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) "Stories of Discovery" Award for her lifetime of work on heme oxygenase, an enzyme many biochemists have come to think will be a useful tool in the treatment of stroke, heart attack, cancer and AIDS. Maines and her work was chosen over several hundred other candidates from around the world.

Maines will travel to the NIEHS in North Carolina to lecture about heme oxygenase to members of congress and senior officials from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to show how important research into the enzyme can be to the overall health of the nation.

Heme oxygenase was long considered nothing more than a molecule that removed the iron from dead red blood cells, but in the past several years doctors have come to realize that it has several functions vital to a person's health. As it goes about its business in the body, heme oxygenase creates three chemicals: carbon monoxide, iron and biliverdin, all of which were once considered little more than toxins. What recently surprised researchers was that these chemicals are of great importance to the body. Carbon monoxide relaxes blood vessels and may act as an important intercellular messenger in the brain. Iron is needed to absorb and transport oxygen throughout the body. And while vitamin E has always been seen as a strong antioxidant, keeping cells from damage, biliverdin is now believed to be the most potent antioxidant made in the body - and it also boosts the body's defenses against viruses.

Recent data also suggests that when newborn babies are deprived of oxygen as they pass through the birth canal, the sudden influx of oxygen when they begin breathing can actually damage their tissues. Researchers believe heme oxygenase comes to the rescue, creating biliverdin to protect the body from the sudden surge of oxygen. This same process may be exploited to control the effect of the oxygen surge after a stroke or heart attack.

Heme oxygenase regulates another chemical that researchers once thought was only toxic; nitric oxide. This ability is stirring up excitement because nitric oxide has been found to exert some control over the immune system. Doctors are now looking to use heme oxygenase to prolong the life of transplanted organs, hoping to quell the immune system's desire to attack them. Using heme oxygenase this may be possible without suppressing the patient's entire immune system. By controlling the body's immune response, doctors may also be able to rouse it to attack cancer cells and thwart the AIDS virus, which preys on the immune system.

The goal of researchers at NIEHS (a division of the NIH) is to reduce illness caused by environmental stress, such as toxic chemicals, foods, and even living conditions. Currently, the NIEHS scientists are looking into how pesticides may cause birth defects; how gene mutation effects breast cancer; how poisonous metals may contribute to Parkinson's Disease; and how lead from paints, gasoline or storage containers effect pregnancy.

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