Discovery may lead to new treatments for jaundice

Updated: Jun 10, 2013, 17:54 PM IST

Toronto: Scientists have discovered how a liver enzyme protects cells from damage caused by jaundice, a find that may lead to development of new treatments for the condition.

University of Guelph researchers in Canada believe the discovery may ultimately lead to an alternative treatment for jaundice, such as a new drug or supplement.

Almost two out of three newborns contract jaundice, with its telltale skin yellowing. Normal treatment involves use of ultraviolet light but it doesn`t always work.

Although the condition is usually benign, severe cases can cause permanent brain damage and lead to cerebral palsy and hearing loss.

Jaundice can also affect people with liver disease or increased breakdown of red blood cells, as in malaria. In all cases, a substance called bilirubin collects in the blood. High amounts can be toxic and can cause permanent brain damage, said Gordon Kirby, co-author of the study.

Previous research had found a naturally occurring enzyme that breaks down bilirubin. Called cytochrome P450 2A5, the enzyme is known to increase in people with liver ailments.

The Guelph team has shown that more bilirubin in the blood activates the gene to make this enzyme. The enzyme helps remove bilirubin and prevents liver cells from dying, said Kirby.

The researchers used cultured liver cells from mice for their study.

Scientists need to determine safe and effective levels of the enzyme before developing any treatment, said Kirby.

"We need to fine-tune our ability to manipulate this enzyme and fully understand its role in bilirubin removal," he said.

The study was published in the journal Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology.