Corporate Banner
Satellite Banner
Crystallography
Scientific Community
 
Become a Member | Sign in
Home>News>This Article
  News
Return

Scientists Solve 40-year Mystery of How Sodium Controls Opioid Brain Signaling

Published: Thursday, January 16, 2014
Last Updated: Thursday, January 16, 2014
Bookmark and Share
The findings pave way for new therapies for treating pain and mood disorders.

Scientists have discovered how the element sodium influences the signaling of a major class of brain cell receptors, known as opioid receptors. The discovery, from The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) and the University of North Carolina (UNC), suggests new therapeutic approaches to a host of brain-related medical conditions.

“It opens the door to understanding opioid related drugs for treating pain and mood disorders, among others,” said lead author Dr. Gustavo Fenalti, a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Professor Raymond C. Stevens of TSRI’s Department of Integrative Structural and Computational Biology.

“This discovery has helped us decipher a 40-year-old mystery about sodium’s control of opioid receptors,” said Stevens, who was senior author of the paper with UNC pharmacologist Professor Bryan Roth. “It is amazing how sodium sits right in the middle of the receptor as a co-factor or allosteric modulator.”

The findings appear in an advanced online publication in the journal Nature on January 12, 2014.

A Sharper Image

The researchers revealed the basis for sodium’s effect on signaling with a high-resolution 3-D view of an opioid receptor’s atomic structure. Opioid receptors are activated by peptide neurotransmitters (endorphins, dynorphins and enkephalins) in the brain. They can also be activated by plant-derived and synthetic drugs that mimic these peptides: among them morphine, codeine, oxycodone and heroin.

Despite these receptors’ crucial importance in health and disease, including pain disorders and addictions, scientists have only begun to understand in detail how they work. Opioid receptors are inherently flimsy and fragile when produced in isolation, and thus have been hard to study using X-ray crystallography, the usual structure-mapping method for large proteins.

In recent years, the Stevens laboratory has helped pioneer the structure determination of G protein-coupled receptors. Although the first crystallographic structures of opioid receptors were determined in 2012, these structural models weren’t fine-grained enough to solve a lingering mystery, particularly for the human delta opioid receptor.

That mystery concerned the role of sodium. The element is perhaps best known to biologists as one of the key “electrolytes” needed for the basic workings of cells. In the early 1970s, researchers in the laboratory of neuroscientist Solomon Snyder at Johns Hopkins University, who had helped discover opioid receptors, found evidence that sodium ions also act as a kind of switch on opioid receptor signaling. They noted that at concentrations normally found in brain fluid, these ions reduced the ability of opioid peptides and drugs like morphine to interact with opioid receptors.

How sodium could exert this indirect (“allosteric”) effect on opioid receptor activity was unclear—and has remained an unsolved puzzle for decades. Now that scientists have discovered the mechanism of sodium’s effect, then in principle they can exploit it to develop better opioid-receptor-targeting drugs.

A Switch Controlling Pain, Depression and Mood Disorders

For the new study, the team constructed a novel, fusion-protein-stabilized version of one of the main opioid receptors in the human brain, known as the delta opioid receptor, and managed to form crystals of it for X-ray crystallography. The latter revealed the receptor’s 3-D atomic structure to a resolution of 1.8 Angstroms (180 trillionths of a meter)-the sharpest picture yet of an opioid receptor.

“Such a high resolution is really necessary to be able to understand in detail how the receptor works,” said Stevens.

The analysis yielded several key details of opioid receptor structure and function, most importantly the details of the “allosteric sodium site,” where a sodium ion can slip in and modulate receptor activity.

The team was able to identify the crucial amino acids that hold the sodium ion in place and transmit its signal-modulating effect. “We found that the presence of the sodium ion holds the receptor protein in a shape that gives it a different affinity for its corresponding neurotransmitter peptides,” Fenalti said.

With the structural data in hand, the researchers designed new versions of the receptor, in which key sodium-site amino-acids were mutated, to see how this would affect receptor signaling. Co-lead author Research Associate Patrick M. Giguere and colleagues in Roth’s Laboratory at UNC, which has long collaborated with the Stevens laboratory, tested these mutant receptors and found that certain amino-acid changes cause radical shifts in the receptor’s normal signaling response.

The most interesting shifts involved a little-understood secondary or “alternative” signaling route, known as the beta-arrestin pathway, whose activity can have different effects depending on the type of brain cell involved. Some drugs that normally bind to the delta opioid receptor and have little or no effect on the beta-arrestin pathway turned out to strongly activate this pathway in a few of these mutant receptors.

In practical terms, these findings suggests a number of ways in which new drugs could target these receptors—and not only delta opioid receptors but also the other two “classical” opioid receptors, mu and kappa opioid receptors. “The sodium site architecture and the way it works seems essentially the same for all three of these opioid receptor types,” said Fenalti.


Further Information
Access to this exclusive content is for Technology Networks Premium members only.

Join Technology Networks Premium for free access to:

  • Exclusive articles
  • Presentations from international conferences
  • Over 2,500+ scientific posters on ePosters
  • More than 3,700+ scientific videos on LabTube
  • 35 community eNewsletters


Sign In



Forgotten your details? Click Here
If you are not a member you can join here

*Please note: By logging into TechnologyNetworks.com you agree to accept the use of cookies. To find out more about the cookies we use and how to delete them, see our privacy policy.

Related Content

TSRI Scientists Find Clues to Cancer Drug Failure
A pair of studies show how the primary protein responsible for multidrug chemotherapy resistance changes shape.
Thursday, March 05, 2015
Scientists Discover How Two Proteins Help Keep Cells Healthy
The work has implications for cancer drug development.
Thursday, December 06, 2012
Team Reveals Key Protein Interactions Involved in Neurodegenerative Disease
New study reveals the structure of c-jun-N-terminal kinases (JNK) enzymes.
Thursday, November 15, 2012
Scientists Find Structure of a Protein that Makes Cancer Cells Resistant to Chemotherapy
A research team at the Scripps Research Institute has obtained the first glimpse of a protein that keeps certain substances, including many drugs, out of cells.
Monday, March 30, 2009
Scientific News
Structural Discoveries Could Aid in Better Drug Design
Scientists have uncovered the structural details of how some proteins interact to turn two different signals into a single integrated output.
New Mathematics Advances the Frontier of Macromolecular Imaging
Berkeley Lab’s M-TIP solves the reconstruction problem for fluctuation X-ray scattering.
Diamond Helps Develop New Way of Studying the Tiniest Microcrystals
Researchers have developed a new type of sample holder for ‘serial protein crystallography’.
Crystal Clear Images Uncover Secrets of Hormone Receptors
NIH researchers gain better understanding of how neuropeptide hormones trigger chemical reactions in cells.
TOPLESS Plants Provide Clues to Human Molecular Interactions
Scientists at Van Andel Research Institute have revealed an important molecular mechanism in plants that has significant similarities to certain signaling mechanisms in humans, which are closely linked to early embryonic development and to diseases such as cancer.
Advancing Cancer Drug Design with Image of Key Protein
Scientists have pioneered the use of a high-powered imaging technique to picture in exquisite detail one of the central proteins of life – a cellular recycling unit with a role in many diseases.
Mould Unlocks New Route to Biofuels
Scientists at The University of Manchester have made an important discovery that forms the basis for the development of new applications in biofuels and the sustainable manufacturing of chemicals.
'Invisible' Protein Structure Explains the Power of Enzymes
A research group at Umeå University in Sweden has managed to capture and describe a protein structure that, until now, has been impossible to study.
Unraveling the Elusive Structure of HIV Protein
Snapshots of HIV virus’ proteins may help design new ways to fight the disease.
Blueprinting Cell Membrane Proteins
Recent breakthrough will make the blueprinting process faster, easier and cheaper, and should have major implications in the field of drug discovery and development.
Skyscraper Banner

Skyscraper Banner
Go to LabTube
Go to eposters
 
Access to the latest scientific news
Exclusive articles
Upload and share your posters on ePosters
Latest presentations and webinars
View a library of 1,800+ scientific and medical posters
2,500+ scientific and medical posters
A library of 2,500+ scientific videos on LabTube
3,700+ scientific videos
Close
Premium CrownJOIN TECHNOLOGY NETWORKS PREMIUM FREE!