Scientists at The Scripps Research Institute and University of Pennsylvania have found a way to uncover potential drug targets that have so far remained hidden from researchers' view. By applying the new method to a type of nerve cell critical to regulating body temperature, the authors found more than 400 "receptors" (structures that bind other molecules, triggering some effect on the cell) responding to neurotransmitters, hormones, and other chemical signals. This represents 20 to 30 times more receptors than previous studies had identified. The technique, described in detail in a review article in the March 11, 2011 issue of the journal Pharmacology and Therapeutics, may be applied to finding "hidden" receptors in other types of nerve cells, expanding the repertoire of potential drug targets for diseases ranging from schizophrenia to Parkinson's disease. "This technique will enable people to uncover many more drug targets," said Dr. Tamas Bartfai, chair of the Department of Molecular and Integrative Neuroscience at Scripps Research. "That may be a game changer for some diseases." Receptors found on cells are among the most important targets for the development of drugs because of the key roles they play in the communication circuits regulating various body functions. So far scientists have identified only a few of the receptors present on different types of nerve cells. Dr. Bartfai's group has long been interested in a class of nerve cells in the brain called "warm sensitive neurons." These cells sense and respond to changes in body temperature, acting like a thermometer inside the brain. As body temperature increases, warm sensitive neurons become more active, telling the body to bring its temperature down. Without this regulation, body temperature could reach dangerous levels, even leading to death.
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