USC researchers produce groundbreaking map of human neuro-receptor

A USC research team comprising scientists from the Keck School of Medicine and the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine have produced the world’s first high-resolution images of the Alpha 7 receptor.

The α7 is the molecule responsible for transmitting signals between neurons, especially in the regions of the brain considered to be associated with learning and memory. This scientific breakthrough has the potential to revolutionize the production of pharmaceuticals used to treat major ailments such as Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia.

Attempts to decipher neuro-receptors have been ongoing for 30 years, without much prior success. Using the image, scientists would now be able to design their medicines specifically to interact with the receptor, instead of the earlier trial-and-error approach.

“A lot of interest in this work will come from pharmaceutical companies,” said Dr. Lin Chen, a professor of biological sciences and chemistry at the Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, to USCNews. “They really have no clear picture of this. They don’t know how or why [their drugs] work.”

The usual method to study such molecules, which involves growing a large quantity using molecular cloning, had failed to produce enough correctly structured α7 to study. So, Dr. Chen’s collaborator, Dr. Steve Sine from Mayo Clinic, engineered a new molecule sharing about 70 percent of its structure in common with the α7 that reacted to stimuli in the same way that natural α7 does. The engineered molecule was then used to form crystals with receptor protein for structural analysis.

“In a sense, these crystals are probably among the world’s most expensive crystals, certainly more expensive than diamond,” Dr. Chen said. “But considering the rich information we can get from these crystals about human neuronal receptors, and the potential impact on drug development that can benefit human health, they are worth the effort.”

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