Little-known protein appears to play important role in obesity and metabolic disease

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With unexpected findings about
a protein that’s highly ex
pressed in fat tissue, scientists at Scripps Research have opened the door to critical new understandings about obesity and metabolism. Their discovery, which appears Nov. 20 in the journal Nature, could lead to new approaches for addressing obesity and potentially many other diseases.
The signaling protein, known as PGRMC2, had not been extensively studied in the past. Short for “progesterone receptor membrane component 2,” it had been detected in the uterus, liver and several areas of the body. But the lab of Enrique Saez, PhD, saw that it was most abundant in fat tissue — particularly in brown fat, which turns food into heat to maintain body temperature — and became interested in its function there.
The team built on their recent discovery that PGRMC2 binds to and releases an essential molecule called heme. Recently in the spotlight for its role in providing flavor to the plant-based Impossible Burger, heme holds a much more significant role in the body. The iron-containing molecule travels within cells to enable crucial life processes such as cellular respiration, cell proliferation, cell death and circadian rhythms.
Using biochemical techniques and advanced assays in cells, Saez and his team found that PGRMC2 is a “chaperone” of heme, encapsulating the molecule and transporting it from the cell’s mitochondria, where heme is created, to the nucleus, where it helps carry out important functions. Without a protective chaperone, heme would react with — and destroy — everything in its path.
“Heme’s significance to many cellular processes has been known for a long time,” says Saez, associate professor in the Department of Molecular Medicine. “But we also knew that heme is toxic to the cellular materials around it and would need some sort of shuttling pathway. Until now, there were many hypotheses, but the proteins that traffic heme had not been identified.”
Through studies involving mice, the scientists established PGRMC2 as the first intracellular heme chaperone to be described in mammals. However, they didn’t stop there; they sought to find out what happens in the body if this protein doesn’t exist to transport heme.
And that’s how they made their next big discovery: Without PGRMC2 present in their fat tissues, mice that were fed a high-fat diet became intolerant to glucose and insensitive to insulin — hallmark symptoms of diabetes and other metabolic diseases. By contrast, obese-diabetic mice that were treated with a drug to activate PGRMC2 function showed a substantial improvement of symptoms associated with diabetes.