David Julius, a 1990 Pew scholar in the biomedical sciences and professor of physiology at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), and Yifan Cheng, a biochemist at UCSF, are using 3-D imaging to take a closer look at receptors that perceive pain that Julius identified a decade ago. The TRPA1 receptor is activated in response to chemical irritants such as tear gas, car fumes, or even wasabi. But without a complete understanding of the receptor’s structure, Julius could not identify the ways the receptor translates that response into pain (or the pungent sensation we get when we eat sushi with wasabi).
Recent advances in 3-D imaging technology allowed Julius to overcome this obstacle. "The big advance here is that we can actually see the structure of the molecule—we can see the atoms in the molecule," he told NPR. This opens the field for drugs that target the specific channels and pathways within the TRPA1 receptor in order to block pain. The findings, described in an NPR story, could help pharmaceutical companies develop new drugs to combat pain and itching.
Diana Bautista, a 2009 Pew scholar, has found evidence that TRPA1 receptors also transmit signals associated with chronic itching, which affects about 10 percent of people worldwide. Drugs that target the “wasabi receptor” could bring relief for chronic itch, with fewer side effects than those caused by the limited number of treatments currently available.
Read Julius’ paper in this week’s Nature to learn more.