Scientists from the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston have discovered a protein that can interfere with the brain's response to leptin. They've also created a compound that blocks the protein's action — a potential forerunner to an anti-obesity drug.
In experiments with mice fed a high-fat diet, scientists from UTMB and the University of California, San Diego explored the role of the protein, known as Epac1, in blocking leptin's activity in the brain. They found that mice genetically engineered to be unable to produce Epac1 had lower body weights, lower body fat percentages, lower blood-plasma leptin levels and better glucose tolerance than normal mice.
When the researchers used a specially developed "Epac inhibitor" to treat brain-slice cultures taken from normal laboratory mice, they found elevated levels of proteins associated with greater leptin sensitivity. Similar results were seen in the genetically engineered mice that lacked the Epac1 gene. In addition, normal mice treated with the inhibitor had significantly lower levels of leptin in their blood plasma — an indication that Epac1 also affected their leptin levels.
Cheng and his colleagues suspected a connection between Epac1 and leptin because Epac1 is activated by cyclic AMP, a signaling molecule linked to metabolism and leptin production and secretion. Cyclic AMP is tied to a multitude of other cell signaling processes, many of which are targeted by current drugs. Cheng believes that understanding how it acts through Epac1 (and another form of the protein called Epac2) will also generate new pharmaceutical possibilities — possibly including a drug therapy that will help fight obesity and diabetes.
"We refer to these Epac inhibitors as pharmacological probes, and while they are still far away from drugs, pharmaceutical intervention is always our eventual goal," Cheng said. "We were the first to develop Epac inhibitors, and now we're working very actively with Dr. Jia Zhou, a UTMB medicinal chemist, to modify them and improve their properties. In addition, we are collaborating with colleagues at the NIH National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences in searching for more potent and selective pharmacological probes for Epac proteins."