We Produce Toxic Formaldehyde

There is new research that reveals some of the toxin formaldehyde in our bodies is a by-product of an essential reaction inside our own cells and does not come from the environment.  New targets for developing cancer therapies could be provided by this, according to research that was led by scientists from the Medical Research Council (MRI) Laboratory of Molecular Biology.

Nature published the research that uncovers formaldehyde is a by-product of a key process called the “one carbon cycle” that uses a vitamin- folate to create DNA and essential amino acids that cells need to function and multiply.  The senior author Dr. Ketan Patel replied the paper from the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology that they’ve known for a while that we must produce formaldehyde in our bodies, but didn’t know where it came from.  Some comes from an unexpected source, which is a key pathway called the one carbon cycle.  This is used to make the building blocks of life like our DNA and certain amino acids.  This is a fundamental process that is present in all forms of life, right down to bacteria.

Our DNA can be damaged by formaldehyde, which is a toxin.  Our cells have two lines of defense against the danger of it.  An enzyme converts this formaldehyde into a less dangerous chemical, called formate, and secondly, DNA damage caused by formaldehyde can be fixed by DNA repair enzymes.

This could provide a target for developing cancer drugs as BRCA1 or BRCA2 breast cancers and some other types that lack the DNA repair enzymes to protect themselves from formaldehyde toxicity.  By treating lab-grown cells with folate it leads to the release of formaldehyde and they speculate that this could lethally damage the DNA of the BRCA cancer cells that cannot repair this damage.  The healthy cells surrounding them would not be damaged since they have functioning DNA repair mechanisms.

According to Dr. Patel, the one carbon cycle is already a key target for cancer drugs and this study opens up exciting new opportunities to harness the pathway for cancer research.

They also found the toxic formaldehyde has a positive function in cells as it also fuels the one-carbon cycle and formaldehyde is broken down int formate, which the one-carbon cycle uses to make the building blocks of life.  Even though the body produces this violently toxic formaldehyde, it converts into something that can be used to fuel the one-carbon cycle, thus useful to the body.  Folate and formaldehyde have a beneficial side as they provide the chemical building blocks for cells to live and grow and the dangerous side of formaldehyde can damage DNA.

Cancer cells may be able to resist current chemo drugs such as methotrexate, that block folate going into the one carbon cycle.  According to Dr. Nathan Richardson, MRC Head of Molecular and Cellular Medicine this study is a great example of the value of investing in discovery science where important insights into cellular metabolism have opened up new opportunities for treating interventions in diseases, such as cancer and overcoming resistance to existing therapies.  They do caution that no conclusions should be drawn about whether there is any overall effect in a living animal consuming folate.

Fredda Branyon