Columbia University Medical Center

New Brain Target for Appetite Control Identified

Finding raises hopes for new anti-obesity medications

New York, NY (June 7, 2012) — Researchers at Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) have identified a brain receptor that appears to play a central role in regulating appetite. The findings, published today in the online edition of Cell, could lead to new drugs for preventing or treating obesity.

“We’ve identified a receptor that is intimately involved in regulating food intake,” said study leader Domenico Accili, MD, professor of Medicine at CUMC. “What is especially encouraging is that this receptor belongs to a class of receptors that turn out to be good targets for drug development, making it a highly ‘druggable’ target. In fact, several existing medications already seem to interact with this receptor. So, it’s possible that we could have new drugs for obesity sooner rather than later.”

In their search for new targets for obesity therapies, scientists have focused on the hypothalamus, a tiny brain structure that regulates appetite. Numerous studies suggest that the regulatory mechanism is concentrated in neurons that express a neuropeptide, or brain modulator, called AgRP. But the specific factors that influence AgRP expression are not known.

The CUMC researchers found new clues to appetite control by tracing the actions of insulin and leptin. Both hormones are involved in maintaining the body’s energy balance, and both are known to inhibit AgRP. “Surprisingly, blocking either the insulin or leptin signaling pathway has little effect on appetite,” says Dr. Accili. “We hypothesized that both pathways have to be blocked simultaneously in order to influence feeding behavior.”

To test their hypothesis, the researchers created a strain of mice whose AgRP neurons lack a protein that is integral to both insulin and leptin signaling. As the researchers hypothesized, removing this protein — Fox01 — had a profound effect on the animals’ appetite. “Mice that lack Fox01 ate less and were leaner than normal mice,” said lead author Hongxia Ren, PhD, associate research scientist in Medicine. “In addition, the Fox01-deficient mice had better glucose balance and leptin and insulin sensitivity — all signs of a healthier metabolism.”

Since Fox01 is a poor drug target, the researchers searched for other ways to inhibit the action of this protein. Using gene-expression profiling, they found a gene that is highly expressed in mice with normal AgRP neurons but is effectively silenced in mice with Fox01-deficient neurons. That gene is Gpr17 (for G-protein coupled receptor 17), which produces a cell-surface receptor called Gpr17.

To confirm that the receptor is involved in appetite control, the researchers injected a Gpr17 activator into normal mice, and their appetite increased. Conversely, when the mice were given a Gpr17 inhibitor, their appetite decreased. Similar injections had no effect on Fox01-deficient mice.

According to Dr. Accili, there are several reasons why Gpr17, which is also found in humans, would be a good target for anti-obesity medications. Since Grp17 is part of the so-called G-protein-coupled receptor family, it is highly druggable. About a third of all existing drugs work through G-protein-coupled receptors. In addition, the receptor is abundant in AgRP neurons but not in other neurons, which should limit unwanted drug side effects.

Dr. Accili and Dr. Ren’s paper is titled, “G protein-coupled purinergic receptor GPR17 mediates orexigenic effects of FoxO1 in AgRP neurons.” The other contributors are Ian J. Orozco (CUMC), Ya Su (Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Bronx, NY), Shigetomo Suyama (Yale University School of Medicine), Roger Gutiérrez-Juárez (Einstein), Tamas L.

Horvath (Yale), Sharon L. Wardlaw (CUMC), Leona Plum (CUMC), and Ottavio Arancio (CUMC).

The study was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health (DK58282, DK57539, DK80003, DK45024, NS49442, and DK63608).

The authors declare no financial or other conflicts of interest.

Columbia University Medical Center provides international leadership in basic, pre-clinical and clinical research, in medical and health sciences education, and in patient care. The medical center trains future leaders and includes the dedicated work of many physicians, scientists, public health professionals, dentists, and nurses at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, the Mailman School of Public Health, the College of Dental Medicine, the School of Nursing, the biomedical departments of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and allied research centers and institutions. Established in 1767, Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons was the first institution in the country to grant the M.D. degree and is among the most selective medical schools in the country. Columbia University Medical Center is home to the largest medical research enterprise in New York City and State and one of the largest in the United States.

Upon its official opening in October 1998, the Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center at Columbia University Medical Center established a new standard of care for the 1.6 million people with diabetes in the New York area—combining world-class diabetes research and education programs with unprecedented family-oriented patient care. Named for the mother of the late Russell Berrie, founder of RUSS™ Toys, the center is today recognized as the most comprehensive diabetes research and treatment center in the tri-state region and has been designated a national “Diabetes Center of Excellence” – one of only three in the state of New York. Approximately one hundred faculty and students, affiliated with the Center, conduct basic and clinical research related to the pathogenesis and treatment of all forms of diabetes and its complications. For more information, visit www.nbdiabetes.org.

Media Contact: Karin Eskenazi, 212-342-0508, ket2116@columbia.edu

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