OHSU research scientists isolate, visualize key protein in regulating blood pressure

Using a powerful electron microscope, researchers at OHSU’s Vollum Institute have been able to see inside a protein that regulates the salt and water balance in our bodies. (OHSU)

Using a powerful electron microscope, researchers at OHSU’s Vollum Institute have been able to see inside a protein that regulates the salt and water balance in our bodies.

It's a first step in being able to target the protein with drugs to regulate high blood pressure -- the silent killer.

“What we’re seeing here are three different proteins that come together and form this ion channel that can let sodium go through,” said graduate student Sigrid Noreng and lead author of the study on the protein. “In certain cases, it will be a closed channel, where it won’t let sodium go through.”

That 3-D model of the key protein involved in keeping the water and salt in our bodies was visualized using a massive Cryo electron microscope on the university's south waterfront.

It opens the door for more research to find drugs to target the protein and, therefore, control diseases related to high blood pressure.

“Evidence shows that if you perturb or change the way this channel works, it immediately affects your blood pressure,’ said professor Isabelle Baconguis.

Researchers in her lab at the Vollum Institute are all about looking at how our bodies balance salt and water.

“This protein, this ENaC, is really the protein that says OK, let’s sodium go back into your body," Baconguis said. "Or if your body says, hey, there’s too much salt, then they shut this protein down.”

And the so-called ENaC protein occurs all over our bodies, from our lungs to our kidneys.

“It has a huge role in the kidneys because it’s sort of the last line of defense for re-absorbing or not re-absorbing salt,” she said. “In this case, sodium, which is basically what’s in your table salt.

“The body is really smart about regulating whether or not to keep the salt or just pee it out.”

But in some people, the protein doesn't function as it should, leading to severe hypertension.

By seeing how it functions, drugs could be developed to make it work properly.

“Our goal, really, is to understand how this protein works and part of understanding how it works is to really know what it looks like,’ Baconguis said.

The cryo-electron microscope housed in OHSU’s Robertson Life Sciences building used in this research is just one of three centers designated to use the microscope to study molecular cells at the atomic level.

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