Wijeyewickrema - Proteases, inhibitors and receptors: relationship to disease states

Our team researches enzymes, called proteases, which operate at the interface between a host, such as a human being and microbes that cause disease. Pathogens such as bacteria secrete proteases to breach host defences. Yet, our primary host defence system, the immune system, also uses such enzymes to protect us from pathogens. Our research focusses on understanding the biology of enzymes from bacteria and humans, so we that can develop compounds to protect against diseases.

Proteases are involved in many biological processes. Their control by inhibitors is important in maintaining health. Proteases also split cell surface receptors, leading to activation of second messenger systems and cellular responses such as differentiation and proliferation. Micro-organisms use proteases to alter normal biological mechanisms in the host and facilitate pathogenesis.

Research areas

Regulation and control of the complement system in immunity

The complement system is vital in preventing disease caused by infections. The system is also implicated in many diseases associated with excess inflammation.

For example, after a heart attack a condition called reperfusion injury occurs when blood supply returns to the tissue after a period of lack of oxygen. Reperfusion injury results from excessive inflammation caused by overactivity of the complement system. This results in reocclusion of the circulation and another heart attack. This strongly implies that control of the complement pathway in this context would prevent heart disease.

We are studying the classical and mannose-binding lectin (MBL) pathways of complement activation, both of which are associated with inflammatory diseases. These pathways involve the sequential activation of proteins by a cascade of proteases. Our lab focuses on the initiating proteases of the two pathways: C1r, C1s and the MBL-associated serine proteases (MASPs).

There are three of the latter enzymes, with MASP-1 and MASP-2 playing important roles in complement activation. It is not clear what role MASP-3 plays in activating complement, but mutants of the enzyme are associated with a developmental disorder called the 3MC syndrome. We have recently determined the structure of a 3MC syndrome-related mutant of MASP-3 and showed definitively that it is inactive. However, the substrates for the enzyme and how it is activated within the context of the neural crest stem cells is not clear.

Our lab examines how these proteases interact with their target substrates: the complement C2 and C4 proteins, and their regulatory inhibitor, C1-inhibitor. We have shown that C1s have a previously unrecognised "exosite" (site of interaction with a substrate on an enzyme other than an active site) on its serine protease domain and characterised this site extensively.

Based on these results, we plan to develop specific protein and peptide inhibitors of the different proteases to determine their roles in diseases. We are also interested in determining the roles of MASP-3, in particular, we want to determine what are the biologically relevant substrates of the enzyme.

Catalytic and adhesin activities of proteases: Porphyromonas gingivalis

Porphyromonas gingivalis, an anaerobic bacterium, is a contributing agent of periodontal (gum) disease. This disease is the primary cause of tooth loss in the Western world and is also associated with heart disease and other systemic diseases.

The bacterium secretes potent cysteine proteases called gingipains. These proteases are vital for the virulence of the bacterium. The proteases consist of a catalytic sub-unit and several other protein sub- units referred to as adhesins.

The adhesins bind to other bacteria, a process which is vital for colonisation of the oral cavity and also bind to host cells and proteins. It's most likely that the adhesin and protease activities of this protease are vital to the virulence of P. gingivalis.

Our research seeks to understand the determinants of both binding and protease specificity and we are using combinatorial peptide libraries to investigate.

Meet the team

Group members

Group leaderWijeyewickrema group

Dr Lakshmi Wijeyewickrema


Professor Robert Pike

Research fellows

Dr Lillian Hor
Dr Tang Yongqing

Research assistants

Jing Pan