Medical News Today: Can blocking a single protein tackle depression, obesity, and pain?

Depression, obesity, and chronic pain are some of the most pressing global health concerns. New research may have found a drug that could one day tackle all of these three conditions.
close up of a scientist's hands
Scientists may have identified a protein inhibitor that could tackle three conditions at once.

Almost 40 percent of adults in the United States were living with obesity in 2015–2016. Worldwide, nearly 40 percent of adults are overweight, and 13 percent of them have obesity.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), depression is the leading cause of disability across the globe. In the U.S., over 17 million adults have experienced at least one episode of major depression in their lives.

Finally, alarming reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have placed the number of U.S. adults living with chronic pain at 50 million. Studies have linked chronic pain with depression, anxiety, and opioid addiction.

All of these severe conditions are taking their toll on U.S. adults. But could there be a silver bullet that could tackle all of them at once?

New research suggests that there might be. Felix Hausch, Ph.D., from the Technical University of Darmstadt, in Germany, led a new investigation into the effects of blocking a single protein that has links with all three conditions.

The protein is called FK506-binding protein 51, or FKBP51. Hausch and colleagues developed a compound that can block the activity of this protein in mice. The drug relieved chronic pain, improved mood, and reduced diet-induced obesity in the rodents.

The researchers presented their findings at the American Chemical Society (ACS) Spring 2019 National Meeting & Exposition in Orlando, FL.

Why study the FKBP51 protein?

Hausch explains, “The FKBP51 protein plays an important role in depression, obesity, diabetes, and chronic pain states.”

He goes on to share the motivation for the research, saying that some previous studies had piqued his interest.

“I was intrigued by the peculiar regulatory role [FKBP51] seemed to play in cells […] [a]nd there was a known natural product that could serve as a starting point. Collectively, this looked like an interesting protein to work on.”

Indeed, previous studies have suggested that FKBP51 may regulate stress and metabolism, mediating the relationship between diet-induced obesity, chronic stress, and stress-related psychiatric conditions.

Several parts of the human body, such as the brain, muscles, and fat tissue, contain FKBP51. The protein serves many functions, including limiting the uptake of sugar and restricting how much fat is turning into brown fat — the good type of fat that helps transform nutrients into energy.

Therefore, the protein FKBP51 can make us store fat instead of burning it, which may lead to obesity. The protein is also involved in how our body responds to stress.

FKBP51 inhibitor affects stress, mood, weight

However, targeting the FKBP51 protein has proven difficult in the past, mainly because it looks very similar to another protein it is close to, called FKBP52.

“These two proteins are very similar in structure, but they are doing opposing things in cells,” explains Hausch.

“We have this yin-yang situation. Selectivity between these two proteins is thought to be crucial, but this is hard to achieve since the two proteins are so similar.”

“We discovered that FKBP51 can change its shape in a way that FKBP52 can’t, and this allowed the development of highly selective inhibitors,” continues the researcher. The scientists used nuclear magnetic resonance techniques to discover a new binding site in FKBP51.

As a result, they developed a “highly selective inhibitor,” which they called SAFit2. Tests in mice revealed its benefits. “It indeed helps mice cope better in stressful situations,” says Hausch.

In fact, SAFit2 lowered stress hormone levels and promoted stress-coping mechanisms in the rodents. “Furthermore, SAFit2 ameliorated inflammatory pain-induced disabilities and diet-induced obesity,” report the scientists.

Inhibition of FKBP51 could thus be a new therapeutic option to treat [depression, obesity, diabetes, and chronic pain states.]”

Felix Hausch

Finally, however, the researchers caution that they need to do much more work before they can test the drug in humans.

Warding Off Stress: Helpful Tips & Tricks

April is Stress Awareness Month. Stress – in one way or another, everyone on this little blue planet deals with it. Whether it’s in the workplace or the home, in our bodies or our minds, with family or among friendships, stress is a real factor that has a huge impact on our lives. It’s an every day battle, and unfortunately for some, it can be a lifelong war. The good news we can fight back! In this day and age, there is an arsenal of weapons to combat everyday stress. Relieve stress with some of these tips.

Three Healthful, Stress-Fighting Tips

1. Get Enough Sleep.

It’s crucial to human function that we all get enough sleep. Sleep allows our bodies to rest and our brains to recharge. Studies show that not getting enough – or getting low quality – sleep can have a dramatic effect on mood, judgement, memory and more. Most people between the ages of 18-49 need around six to eight hours of sleep each night. If you have trouble sleeping, especially due to worry, develop a routine that helps you get relaxed and ready for bed. Some gentle yoga, a warm bath with epsom salts, aromatherapy or chamomile tea can all help. And avoid screens! The blue light from TVs, laptops, tablets or smart phones have a directly negative effect on sleep quality.

2. Eat Well.

We all want to eat comfort foods when we’re stressed out, and it makes sense: your body is actually craving carbohydrates. Carbs produce serotonin, giving you those nice, happy feelings. But if you’re eating unhealthy carbs in the form of high fat foods (think pizza, chips, macaroni and cheese), those types of carbs will have the opposite effect – making you feel lethargic and less able to deal with stress. Aim for low fat, high fiber meals with the majority of the carbohydrates complex. Baked sweet potatoes, lentils, or veggies over rice are good options. A cup of coffee in the morning and an alcoholic drink with dinner are ok, but avoid drinking too much of either, as these stimulants can trigger more anxious feelings. Of course, a little chocolate now and then is allowed! 😉

3. Get Out There.

More than just recommending exercise (which is of course recommended), draw your focus away from worry. Intentionally set out to draw attention away from the things that are causing you stress. Joining a running club, drawing, painting, walking, reading, or volunteering are all good ideas. You may find yourself dealing with the situations that you’ve been worrying about much better after you’ve taken some time away to get out of your own head.

4. Connect.

Your network of supportive friends, family, coworkers and colleagues can be one of your best tools for handling stress. Talk to others – preferably face to face, or by making a phone call! Share what’s going on in your life – your trusted connections will be able to give you a fresh perspective on stressful situations, and it helps in keeping your connections strong, too. This article in Psychology Today explains why it’s so important to surround yourself with the right people during high times of stress!

Send A Little R & R

Is someone you know in the thick of a stressful time? From pampering spa gifts to flowers in soothing colors, GiftTree has tons of stress-fighting gift ideas. And hey, there’s nothing wrong with sending yourself a little relaxation, too.

Bathing Sea Salts Collection

Bathing Sea Salts Collection

Tender Heart Bouquet

Tender Heart Bouquet

Comfort Bowl of HealingComfort Bowl of Healing Spa Booties with Lavender Aromatherapy

Spa Booties with Lavender Aromatherapy

Comment Below

How do you de-stress and find relief from stressful situations? Let us know!