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Channeling healthy fats
In a study published in 2003, Cori Bargmann — then at the University of California at San Francisco — and Rockefeller’s Jeffrey M. Friedman demonstrated that a protein called TRPV4 is essential to an organism’s sense of touch. Now research from Bargmann’s newly established Rockefeller lab indicates that this protein, and the molecules that control it, may have implications for cardiovascular health.
Bargmann and Friedman identified the protein TRPV4 in mice, and osm-9 in C. elegans roundworm, as a component of a specific set of openings or channels in a cell’s membrane that are key to transmitting impulses between nerve cells and are involved in an organism’s ability to sense fluids. In one experiment, the scientists showed that worms that were lacking the protein were unable to avoid noxious chemicals placed in their path.
“We have a pretty clear sense of what these channels are doing in the sensory system,” Bargmann says. “But we knew that we didn’t have the complete story. There was something the cell was providing to help them sense the environment.”
There were hints from other research that polyunsaturated fats were important for controlling TRPV ion channels. With the help of Jennifer Watts at Washington State University, Bargmann and colleagues used worm mutants to manipulate the pathways involved in fatty acid synthesis. Examination of the mutants showed that certain fats — specifically omega-3 and -6, the same healthful dietary fatty acids that are found in fish — are involved in TRPV channel function.
“We know that polyunsaturated fatty acids are associated with cardiovascular health, but we don’t really understand what they are doing,” says Bargmann. “Our research shows that these fatty acids may act as regulators of TRPV channels, helping them carry out their sensory functions. It is possible that the health benefits of fatty acids may be explained through the actions of these channels.”

January 28, 2005



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