Surprising gut protein discovery is new target for constipation treatment
Researchers in Australia have discovered that a touch-sensitive protein normally found in skin is also located in the gut. There, it seems to sense the presence of food and triggers contractions to push it along, while reduced levels of this protein may be implicated in conditions like constipation.
The protein in question is known as Piezo2 and plays a key role in our sense of touch by responding to mechanical pressure. It’s normally found in the skin, and is particularly abundant in sensitive areas like the fingertips. The discovery of Piezo2 earned scientist Ardem Patapoutian the 2021 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
But in the new study, researchers from Flinders University have now found Piezo2 in an unexpected place – the gut. The team found that the protein is expressed in mouse and human enterochromaffin (EC) cells, where they seem to help with gut motility.
“Our research identified Piezo2 in cells that line the human digestive tract, allowing them to sense physical stimuli, such as touch or pressure, that would occur when food is present,” said Lauren Jones, lead author of the study. “The cells then respond by releasing serotonin to stimulate gut contractions and push the food along.”
Intriguingly, the researchers also found that Piezo2 levels decrease with age, which would slow gut motility and potentially contribute to age-related constipation. And while there’s still more work needed to link a lack of Piezo2 to constipation, age-related or otherwise, the team says it might open up new potential treatment targets.
“This research provides the building blocks for both further research and the development of highly specific treatments to reduce the impacts of constipation,” said Jones. “We now have the potential to create treatments that are taken orally and only directly impact these cells that line the gut, therefore significantly reducing side effects typically seen with many of the current medications.”
The research was published in the journal Gastroenterology.