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Visfatin: Real Or Not?

A commentor to my Proteomics 101 post the other day brought up an important point: that before you can have a chance to figure out what a protein is doing, you have to know that it exists. Finding the darn things is no small job, since you’re digging through piles of chemically similar stuff to unearth them. What’s more, we can’t just ignore ’em: some of the low-concentration proteins are also correspondingly important and powerful.
Nasty arguments can erupt over whether a given protein and its proposed functions even exist. Crockery is flying over one of those right now, an insulin-like protein hormone dubbed “visfatin” by its discoverers in Osaka a couple of years ago. Well, in this case the protein probably exists, but does it do what it’s advertised to do? An insulin mimic secreted by fat cells would be worth knowing about, but there doesn’t seem to be enough of it present in the blood to do much of anything, given how well it binds to its putative targets. There are also reports that some of that data in the Osaka paper are hard to reproduce.
Complicating things even more is the (apparently well-founded) contention that visfatin is a re-discovery of a protein already known as PBEF, which is identical to another protein named Nampt. (Each “discovering” group assigned their own name, a situation that happens so often in biology that people don’t even notice it any more).
The whipped topping on the whole thing is a accusation of misconduct by someone in Japan, which led to an investigation by Osaka University, which has now recommended that the original paper be retracted. Its lead author, Iichiro Shimomura, does not agree, as you might well imagine. The points of contention are many: whether the misconduct was real at all, or whether it describes real events that don’t rise to the level of misconduct, or whether the conclusions of the paper are invalidated or not by them, and so on.
An early solution appears unlikely. And we still don’t know what exactly visfatin/PBEF/Nampt is doing. Next time you wonder how things are going over in the proteome, consider this one.

4 comments on “Visfatin: Real Or Not?”

  1. NJBiologist says:

    Wow. Is it just me, or does this sound exactly like some of the discussions around new enzyme activities, circa 1970?

  2. ExBenchTech says:

    I remember a great quote (but not who uttered it) along the lines that it would be easier to get biologists to share toothbrushes than nomenclature systems.

  3. bootsy says:

    If I got to name my discoveries personally, I would be pretty reluctant to give that up too. I wish I had worked on fruit flies back in the day.
    IUPAC naming does not make for good poetry or puns.

  4. NJBiologist says:

    ExBenchTech–That one was too good to not follow up on. Here’s what I found:
    “Biologists would rather share their toothbrush than share a gene name,” says Michael Ashburner, joint head of the European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI) at Hinxton near Cambridge, and one of GO’s founders. “Gene nomenclature is beyond redemption.”
    from Pearson H (2001) Biology’s name game. Nature vol. 411 pp. 631-632

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