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Front Biosci. 2008 May 1;13:5406-20.

Cystatins: biochemical and structural properties, and medical relevance.

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  • 1J. Stefan Institute, Dept. of Biochemistry, Molecular and Structural Biology, SI-1000 Ljubljana, Slovenia.


The cystatin superfamily comprises a large group of the cystatin domain containing proteins, present in a wide variety of organisms, including humans. Cystatin inhibitory activity is vital for the delicate regulation of normal physiological processes by limiting the potentially highly destructive activity of their target proteases such as the papain (C1) family, including cysteine cathepsins. Some of the cystatins also inhibit the legumain (C13) family of enzymes. Failures in biological mechanisms controlling protease activities result in many diseases such as neurodegeneration, cardiovascular diseases, osteoporosis, arthritis, and cancer. Cystatins have been classified into three types: the stefins, the cystatins and the kininogens, although other cystatin-related proteins, such as CRES proteins, are emerging. The stefins are mainly intracellular proteins, whereas the cystatins and the kininogens are extracellular. The cystatins are tight binding and reversible inhibitors. The basic mechanism of interaction between cystatins and their target proteases has been established, based mainly on the crystal structures of various cathepsins, stefins and cystatins and their enzyme-inhibitor complexes. Cystatins, as rather non-selective inhibitors, discriminate only slightly between endo- and exopeptidases. They are also prone to form amyloids. The levels of some stefins and cystatins in tissue and body fluids can serve as relatively reliable markers for a variety of diseases. In this review we summarize present knowledge about cystatins and their role in some diseases.

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