A five-year $1.5 million grant to Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health aims to research into the function of a biomarker for brain injury called Translocator Protein 18 kDa, or TSPO. The grant comes from the National Institute of Environmental Health (NIEHS) and seeks to better understand the function of TSPO in brain injury and inflammation, but there are also hopes for targets for treatment or therapy.
Tomás Guilarte, PhD, chair of the Department of Environmental Sciences at Columbia University is set to lead the studies, as a press release says he pioneered these studies back in 1995 and validated the biomarker, allowing it to be used in research studies still occurring across the globe.
TSPO levels rise markedly in areas of brain injury, and can be seen through Positron Emission Tomography (PET), allowing researchers to see a real-time picture of where inflammation from injury is occurring, as well as allowing doctors to track how treatment reduces inflammation. However, there is still little known about how or why this process happens.
TSPO is known for playing a role in the production of steroids which regulate inflammation, and is found in the adrenal cortex and other peripheral organs that produce steroids. It’s most well-known function is to transport cholesterol into mitochondria to produce pregnenolone. But, little of this explains the function of the biomarker in the brain.
Dr. Guillarte plans to use cell culture systems and animal models to study the function of TSPO in microglia and astrocytes, the flia cells which express and increase TSPO at sites of brain injury. “By understanding the neurobiology of TSPO better, we believe we can open new avenues to treat inflammation and brain injury,” he says. “There is evidence now that chemicals that bind to this protein have therapeutic potential.”