The complement system in blood plasma is a major mediator of innate immune defence. The function of complement is to recognize, then opsonize or lyse, particulate materials, including bacteria, yeasts and other microrganisms, host cell debris and altered host cells. Recognition occurs by binding of complement proteins to charge or saccharide arrays. After recognition, a series of serine proteases is activated, culminating in the assembly of complex unstable proteases called C3/C5 convertases. These activate the complement protein C3, which acts as an opsonin. The complement serine proteases include the closely related C1r, C1s, MASPs 1-3 (80-90 kDa), C2 and Factor B (100 kDa), Factor D (25 kDa) and Factor I (85 kDa). Each of these has unusually restricted specificity and low enzymic activity. The C1r, C1s and MASP group occur as proenzymes. When activated, they are regulated, like many plasma serine proteases, by a serpin, C1-inhibitor. C2 and Factor B, however, have complex multiple regulation by a group of complement proteins called the Regulation of Complement Activation (or RCA) proteins, whereas Factors I and D appear to have no natural inhibitors. Advances in structure determination and protein-protein interaction properties are leading to a more detailed understanding of the complement-system proteases, and are indicating possible new routes for potential therapeutic control of complement.
Modular serine proteases are central to the complement cascade of the mammalian humoral immune system. These proteases form protein complexes through multi-domain interactions to achieve their proteolytic activity. Federico et al. review the structural insights into complement initiation by auto-activation of the hetero-tetrameric proteases of the large danger-recognition protein complexes, amplification and labelling of particles by the formation and activity of C3 convertases, and regulation by convertase dissociation and degradation to prevent ‘bystander’ damage to healthy host cells and tissues. The data reveal that complex formation and large domain-domain rearrangements underlie the proteolytic reactions of the complement cascade, which enables the host to recognize and clear invading microbes and host debris from its blood and fluids surrounding tissues.
Proteases play important roles in human physiology and pathology. The complement system is a proteolytic cascade, where serine proteases activate each other by limited proteolysis in a strictly ordered manner. Serine proteases are essential in both the initiation and the amplification of the cascade. Since uncontrolled complement activation contributes to the development of serious disease conditions, inhibition of the complement serine proteases could be an attractive therapeutic approach. Gál et al. give a brief overview of the major types of natural serine protease inhibitors and their role in controlling the complement cascade. A special emphasis is laid on C1-inhibitor, a natural complement protease inhibitor, which is approved for clinical use in hereditary angioedema (HAE). We also examine the potential of developing artificial complement protease inhibitors. Synthetic small-molecule drugs can be very efficient serine protease inhibitors, but they usually lack sufficient specificity. A promising approach to yield more specific compounds is the alteration of natural protease inhibitors through engineering or directed evolution resulting in new variants with fine-tuned specificity and enhanced affinity.
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